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Virtually everyone with whom Human Rights Watch talked with in Aceh lamented the collapse of the rule of law and the de facto destruction of courts. In some areas, such as North Aceh, the district court has not been operational for two years, and the building itself has been vandalized. There and in other districts, judges, prosecutors, and other legal personnel have left of their own volition or been intimidated into leaving. (GAM has made it clear that its goal is to ensure that all government offices cease operations.)

A delegation of eighteen Acehnese lawyers met with senior government officials, including President Wahid, on June 6, 2001 and held a press conference immediately afterwards to draw attention to the woeful state of the judiciary in Aceh. They noted that there were no judges at all in five districts: Aceh Besar, Pidie, Bireuen, South Aceh, and West Aceh. In East Aceh, judges had been appointed in December 2000, but then went on leave and never returned. The only fully functioning court in all of Aceh was on the island of Sabang, which as of June 2001 had not been touched by the conflict.73

The lack of any functioning legal system has had several consequences. Villagers from districts such as Bireun, Pidie, and North Aceh where courts were no longer functioning told Human Rights Watch that prisons had effectively been turned into extortion machines for the police. One woman told Human Rights Watch that her relative had been arrested together with a man who had just returned from working in Malaysia where thousands of Acehnese are employed as migrant workers. For the police, that was enough to suspect them both of being GAM, as GAM maintains operational bases in Malaysia. The two were hauled off to prison. When the woman sought her relative's release, police demanded Rp.1 million (U.S. $100). She was able to bargain it down to Rp.600,000, and then her relative was freed.74

A second consequence is the emergence of makeshift courts at the village level, presided over by a qazi, or Islamic judge, sometimes selected by GAM, to deal with petty theft and local disputes. A third is that in many areas, the rule of the gun has replaced the rule of law, and simple thuggery is rampant.

In recognition of the fact that some rule of law was better than none, GAM members on March 18, 2001 agreed to allow the reopening of Indonesian courts. The agreement came in a statement issued at the end of a round of talks between GAM and Indonesian officials and was little noticed at the time. But many individuals Human Rights Watch met with in May 2001, including senior members of the legal community in Aceh, agreed that it might be worth considering how to reopen one court on an experimental basis, perhaps with an initial mandate to try only minor criminal offenses. Both sides would have to provide credible security guarantees for the personnel who would staff it, and international donors could provide technical assistance and advisers to ensure that it had the resources and expertise to function. No one had any illusions about the difficulties involved, but many believed a successful experiment in restoring the rule of law could change the political atmosphere in a way that would make other constructive steps possible.

Two days after the visit of the Acehnese lawyers to Jakarta, the Ministry of Justice announced that it would be sending more judges to Aceh, but it was not clear whether their departure was imminent, or whether there was any careful analysis of the political sensitivities involved. For one thing, the announcement suggested that the ministry only became aware of the problem of non-functioning courts in Aceh after meeting with the lawyers; for another, it suggested that the ministry would coordinate with the security forces in sending the judges.75 In any case, as a new Minister of Justice prepared to take over in early August, the fate of his predecessor's decisions remained unknown.

73 "Akibat Tidak Ada Aparat Hukum Proses Peradilan di Aceh Lumpuh," Kompas, June 7, 2001.

74 Interview, Banda Aceh, May 21, 2001.

75 "Depkeh Kirim Hakim ke Aceh," Kompas, June 9, 2001.

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