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Indonesia: New Prisoners of Conscience in the Post-Suharto Era

(Jakarta) In separate reports released today, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for the release of all prisoners of conscience in Indonesia and for the repeal of legislation used to prosecute and imprison activists engaged in peaceful political expression.

A series of amnesties following the forced resignation of President Suharto in May 1998 led to the release of all prisoners of conscience and pledges by the Indonesian authorities to end politically motivated prosecutions. However, since then at least 46 prisoners of conscience have been imprisoned--39 of them since Megawati Sukarnoputri became president in July 2001.

"Moves towards greater political freedoms and respect for freedom of expression are being undermined by the prosecution and imprisonment of peaceful political, labor, independence and other activists," said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia division director. "With less than one year to go before Indonesia's first direct presidential elections, to be locking up individuals who criticize the government is an alarming development for the electoral process."

The two human rights organizations expressed particular concern about the increasing use of an article under Indonesia's Criminal Code that punishes "insulting the President or Vice-President" with up to six years imprisonment. Since late 2002, at least 14 political activists have been sentenced to prison terms and three others are facing charges under these provisions. In most cases, the activists have been arrested following their participation in peaceful demonstrations.

"Repressive legislation used under the authoritarian regime of former President Suharto has no place in a country which claims to be set on a path towards a fully-fledged democracy," said Ingrid Massage, interim director of the Asia and Pacific Program of Amnesty International.

Ignatius Mahendra, the Chairman of the Yogyakarta branch of the National Democratic Student's League (LMND), and Yoyok Eko Widodo, a member of the Street Buskers Union (SPI), are among the latest to be imprisoned under charges of insulting the President or Vice-President. Each was sentenced to three years in prison in April after being found guilty of burning portraits of President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Vice-President Hamzah Haz during a peaceful demonstration in January this year. On July 1, a five-year prison term was handed down to Muhammad Nazar, a leading political activist in Aceh province on Sumatra. He was accused of "spreading hatred against the government" for his participation in peaceful pro-independence meetings earlier this year.

A range of other repressive legislation has also been used to detain prisoners of conscience. Peaceful independence activists in the provinces of Aceh and Papua have been charged with "spreading hatred against the government" or with rebellion. Four trade union activists who were arrested in East Kalimantan in January 2002 for their role in peaceful protests against wage levels are currently appealing prison sentences of up to six months after being found guilty of inciting the public to commit a criminal act.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have campaigned for many years for the amendment of the Indonesian Criminal Code to conform with international law in order to protect basic freedoms of expression and assembly.

"The repeal of these laws is long overdue," said Ingrid Massage of Amnesty International. "Any legal provisions that criminalize peaceful political activities must be repealed as soon as possible. In the meantime, the Megawati administration should make a public commitment to end any such prosecutions, which call into question its commitment to a pluralistic society based on respect for human rights."

The two human rights organizations also called upon donors, including Japan, the European Union, the United States and Australia, to insist on legal reforms to end these retrograde practices that are creating a new generation of political prisoners in Indonesia.

The problem of unfair trials in which prisoners of conscience have been convicted must also be addressed. In many cases, arrests have been carried out without warrants and detainees have been denied access to lawyers, and in some cases, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.

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