Failure of courts hurts Jakarta's effort to control rebels

Indonesia set a deadline this week for peace talks with Aceh.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Nurjannah jumped back when the soldier poked his head out of the early morning sunlight into her kitchen. But she was quickly reassured – his rifle was slung carelessly over his shoulder, and he politely asked her in perfect Indonesian to wake up her husband, Kamaruddin. "Don't worry,'' the soldier said. "We just need you to send him out front with the others now."

"I did what he asked,'' Nurjannah says. A sleepy Kamaruddin, stretching as he went out, was also calm. The couple had moved to company housing at the Bumi Flora rubber and palm-oil plantation after their marriage six years ago. It had proven a peaceful eddy amid Aceh's 25-year-old war for independence. Their two children had been born here and were thriving in the country air.

But as her husband and a cluster of male neighbors were led to a small clearing, her heart went cold. According to transcripts from government and human rights workers' interviews with eyewitnesses, the soldiers ordered the men to remove their shirts and squat down. They then asked the men if they were Javanese, Indonesia's dominant ethnic group. After the men affirmed they were all ethnic-Acehnese, the soldiers, who witnesses say were members of the Indonesian military, opened fire, killing 30 men and one small boy.

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Kamaruddin wasn't hit by the first salvo. Nurjannah says she ran from soldier to soldier, begging "please don't kill my husband.'' One soldier warned her to be quiet, then stepped forward and killed Kamaruddin. "I want those men brought to justice,'' says Nurjannah in a flat-voiced interview a year after the murders. "But I've come to accept that will never happen."

Nurjannah's fatalism highlights a disturbing national trend that has deepened under the year-long leadership of President Megawati Sukarnoputri: The collapse of efforts to use the justice system to rein in military abuses and lower the temperature in conflict areas like Aceh, where 25,000 troops are arrayed against 5,000 members of the rebel Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Instead, incidents like the Aug. 9, 2001, massacre at Bumi Flora in East Aceh – which the Indonesian military claims was carried out by GAM – are largely ignored or undermined by what observers say are disturbingly weak prosecutions and investigations.

"There is no functioning legal process in East Aceh, or anywhere else in Aceh,'' says Jusuf Puteh, the head of the East Aceh Human Rights Assistance Post, an independent organization that has been collecting evidence on the Bumi Flora case.

Aceh is home to one of the world's largest natural gas fields, run by ExxonMobil. The insurgency has its roots in anger that most of the province's natural-resource revenue has traditionally gone to Jakarta. Ms. Megawati has promised her government will "crush" GAM, something her three predecessors failed to do. This week, Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudoyono warned the rebels to sign a peace deal by Dec. 7 or face "intensified military operations." GAM said it was willing to resume talks.

But to many in the province, the failure of justice is only inspiring the next generation of rebels. Lawyers in Aceh say no cases have been brought against soldiers over the past two years, and that when investigations are pursued, they are undermined by an apparent unwillingness of the police and civilian human rights officials to pursue leads.

"The government is using the armed forces to extract concessions at the negotiating table,'' says Aceh legislator Abdullah Saleh. "It's an approach that will only work if the soldiers are professional. What can make them professional is a justice process. That's the missing piece."

Meanwhile, the Bush administration, which sees Indonesia as an important ally in the war on terror, is seeking to normalize military relations – broken after 1999 abuses in East Timor.

But Western diplomats say a resumption of full ties could be postponed because of the absence of efforts to achieve justice in Aceh and elsewhere. Last week, Indonesia acquitted six military and police officers on charges related to the East Timor violence. In a statement on the verdict, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the US was "disappointed that prosecutors in these cases did not fully use the resources and evidence available to them."

In the Bumi Flora case, Mr. Puteh says he began interviewing more than a dozen eyewitnesses and witnesses a day after the killings. Having compared notes with other investigators, including the US-based Human Rights Watch, Puteh says he's convinced the massacre was carried out by Indonesian soldiers. But he says getting the government's National Commission on Human Rights to compile a dossier for prosecution is a losing battle.

Though the commission agreed to conduct a full investigation earlier this year, Mr. Puteh says little work has been done. "It seems like the government has no interest in this case,'' he says.

The most puzzling aspect of the killings is motive – though Western governments have accused Indonesian forces in the past of killing civilians to punish GAM attacks. Junior police officials in East Aceh say they don't investigate allegations against soldiers, leaving it up to the Army to police itself.

Admiral Widodo Adisucipto, the armed forces chief at the time of murders, has blamed GAM for the massacre, as has General Endriartono Sutarto, the army chief of staff. Military and police officials have variously suggested the motive for the killing was a refusal of Bumi Flora's owner to pay a bribe, the workers' refusal of a GAM demand they go on strike, or collective workers' refusal to hand over their wages to GAM.

Gaguk Sumartono, the East Aceh police chief, deflects most questions about Bumi Flora, saying responsibility for investigating the case is out of his hands, but adds that he doubts the killings were committed by the military. "People make all kinds of claims,'' he says. "You have to be careful – maybe they have a political agenda."

But Aceh-based human rights groups and US-based Human Rights Watch all say interviews with witnesses and survivors point to a military unit. "Look, GAM kills collaborators, government officials, in ones and twos,'' says a Western diplomat. "They've never massacred large numbers of Acehnese – it doesn't make sense. They want the support of the local people."

The Aceh branch of the National Commission on Human Rights didn't return five calls for comment. National Commissioner B.N. Marbun, who is in charge of the Bumi Flora investigation, couldn't be reached for comment. A secretary at his Jakarta office said he'll be out of the country until September.

The involvement of Mr. Marbun has drawn criticism from some quarters, particularly the US-based Human Rights Watch. He formerly headed the Indonesian government commission to ensure that militias disarmed ahead of East Timor's 1999 independence vote. He failed in that task, and militias armed by the Indonesian military participated in a rampage that claimed 1,000 lives.

Aceh is the most glaring and pressing example, but a faltering justice system is also fuelling a smaller insurgency in Papua Province and ethnic violence on Sulawesi and in the Maluku provinces. Bumi Flora also represents a broader collapse in the legal system, which has fueled a rise in thefts and kidnappings not just by GAM and the Indonesian military but also by criminal gangs that are moving up into the province from North Sumatra.

Both government and nongovernment sources in the province say the southern half of the province is now a shifting field of alliances between corrupt soldiers, GAM rebels, and gangsters.

Nurjannah, the widowed survivor of the Bumi Flora massacre, says focusing on her children has helped her get over her grief. "We weren't rich but our lives were good, we were happy,'' she says. "I've got to find a way to get that back again."

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