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The Indonesian government has failed to take action even on the most egregious cases of human rights violations in Aceh - and even when opportunities were available to try the cases outside Aceh.

The most notable example in this regard is the case of the murder of three volunteers for a nongovernmental organization known as RATA (Rehabilitation Action for Victims of Torture in Aceh). The three, together with a fourth volunteer who survived, were abducted and killed outside Lhokseumawe, North Aceh, on December 6, 2000 in a case that drew worldwide outrage.69 The survivor gave a detailed deposition to senior Indonesian police officials before going into hiding. In late December, based on his testimony, Banda Aceh police arrested eight men, four civilian informers and four army officers. The civilians included a notorious thug and longtime military informer called Ampon Thaib Geudong, forty-eight, known as Teungku Pon; Abdullah bin Yusuf, known as Guru, thirty-seven; Maimun, known as Buyung, forty-four, and Madiah, forty-four. The four soldiers were Maj. Jerry Patras, head of intelligence for military resort command (Korem) 011 in Lhokseumawe, and three more junior officers, Sgt. Slamet Jaya, Sgt. Hermanto, and Lt. Harry Ruman.

The eight suspects were accused of premeditated murder under the Indonesian Criminal Code, and because they included both military and civilian suspects, they were scheduled to be tried by a so-called koneksitas court, involving both military and civilian judges. Many Acehnese were dubious about the fairness of such a court, after a trial in 2000 produced guilty verdicts for low-ranking soldiers, but their commander was never prosecuted.70

On February 21, 2001, the police investigating team turned the case file over to the prosecutor of the High Court in Banda Aceh. On March 8, the prosecutor returned it, saying the file was not complete, implying that he considered the evidence insufficient. In the meantime, all of the suspects were transferred to Medan, North Sumatra, for further questioning. The military suspects were detained at the military police compound of the Bukit Barisan command in Medan; the civilians were held in a Brimob barracks.

As the case appeared to be moving slowly toward trial, however, the National Human Rights Commission decided to try and make the RATA case the first case to be tried under Law No.26, passed by the Indonesian parliament in November 2000. That law provides for the establishment of special human rights courts to be set up to try serious human rights offenses that rise to the level of crimes against humanity or war crimes; the definitions of serious crimes are taken almost verbatim from the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court. The law also gives responsibility to the National Human Rights Commission, rather than the police, to conduct the investigation, and to appoint a commission of inquiry (KPP-HAM) to see if a particular case is part of a broader pattern of "widespread or systematic abuse."

When the National Human Rights Commission officials proposed that the RATA case should be turned over to them for investigation as a human rights case, the Attorney General's office in Jakarta argued that to change the charges from murder to serious human rights violation would mean that the investigation would have to start from scratch and all suspects would have to be released.71 The human rights courts, however, were not yet operational, and there was a danger that if the charges were changed, the pre-trial detention of the suspects would quickly exceed the time allowed under Indonesian law, and they would have to be released anyway.

As this debate was heating up, the four civilians were mysteriously released from the Brimob barracks on March 22, 2001, and as of early August 2001, remained at large. Brimob commanders rather feebly argued that as the men had been so well-behaved, the guards had not been as diligent as they should have been about watching them. Most observers believed the "escape" could only have taken place with official connivance. Top security officials ordered an investigation into the break-out, but the results have never been made public. When Human Rights Watch asked the head of the provincial police command in Aceh what actions had been taken against the Brimob officers responsible, he shrugged and said in English, "To err is human..."72

The escape left only the four military men in prison, leading some jurists to argue that now, the only possibility of trial was in a straightforward military court where the chances of an impartial trial were even slimmer than with a koneksitas court. But the escape caused a further problem. It was the civilian thugs who had been the hitmen in the RATA killings, and the civilians whom the one eyewitness had been able to identify by name. Without their presence at the trial, there was concern that the evidence against the four military officers might not hold up. And indeed, on April 30, 2001, the prosecutor in Banda Aceh once again turned the case file back to the investigating team asking them to strengthen the evidence.

As of August 2001, it remained a question whether anyone would ever be tried, let alone convicted, for the RATA killings.

69 See, for example, "Indonesian Worker Recounts Killing," Associated Press, December 13, 2000; "Aid Worker in Indonesia Escaped Executioners to Tell His Tale," Los Angeles Times, December 15, 2000; "Aid Workers Targeted in Aceh Strife," Washington Post, December 13, 2000. See also Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, "Indonesia: Aid Workers Executed in Aceh," December 8, 2000; Human Rights Watch, "Indonesia: Sole Survivor of Attack on Humanitarian Aid Workers Speaks," December 13, 2000.

70 This was the so-called Bantaqiah trial in May 2000, which found twenty-four soldiers guilty of a massacre of more than fifty civilians in a religious school. The army wrongly suspected the head of the school of hoarding arms for the rebels.

71 This argument was based on a combination of lack of precedent and deliberate obstructionism from the Attorney General's office; in fact it was technically and legally possible for the transfer to take place.

72 Interview with Chairul Rasjid, chief of police, Banda Aceh, May 20, 2001.

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