U.S. Journalist in Danger/Reporters and Human Rights Defenders Targeted for Exposing
Indonesian Military Atrocities in Aceh
by Kurt Biddle
June 21, 2003
June 19, 2003: The U.S.-based Indonesia Human Rights Network (IHRN) today called upon the Indonesian government to respect freedom of the press, ensure the safety of journalists and human rights workers working in Aceh, and to end harassment and intimidation of activists and reporters focusing on the war-torn region.
The life of American William ³Billy² Nessen, the only journalist to spend time with the rebel Free Aceh Movement (GAM) since Indonesia renewed the war on Aceh in mid-May, is in danger. The Indonesian military (TNI) has demanded that Nessen turn himself in. Nessen is refusing to give himself up to the TNI and has requested that he be allowed to leave Indonesia without being stopped or interrogated. He also asks that the U.S. Embassy or an independent third party meet and escort him out of the country. Because these conditions have not been guaranteed, Nessen missed the TNIıs June 14 deadline to surrender.
"I am not going to turn myself in," Nessen told the Sydney Morning Herald. "My fear is of being shot, tortured, beaten and arrested and held indefinitely in a black hole." The military operation commander for Aceh, Brigadier-General Bambang Darmono, has said that Nessen will be arrested.
Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter on June 15 to Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri requesting that Nessenıs safety and safe passage out of Indonesia be ensured.
On June 10, the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists also sent a letter to Megawati urging immediate action to ensure Nessenıs safety. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders sent a similar letter to Indonesian military officials.
Aceh provincial governor, Abullah Puteh, recently commented, ³Foreign journalists are here to stir up problems in Aceh² and cited Nessen as an example.
The press has repeatedly come under fire during the Indonesian militaryıs renewed war on Aceh. Snipers have ambushed several press vehicles. Police and army officials have interrogated journalists reporting on TNI atrocities against civilians; some journalists have received death threats. Indonesia is employing an ³embedded reporter² program Indonesian journalists undergo ³boot camp² style training and wear military uniforms. Reporters have been warned not to report on military abuses they have witnessed. Mohamad Jamal, a cameraman for the Indonesian government-run television station TVRI, was kidnapped by unknown men on May 20, the day after current military operations began in Aceh. Jamalıs body was found on June 17 in a river near Banda Aceh, bound and gagged with duct tape with a noose around his neck.
A reporter for Indonesian television station SCTV, Dhandy Dwi Laksono, was fired after interviewing an Acehnese man was about being tortured by the TNI. According to Laksono, the station received threatening messages from the military after the interview aired.
Human rights workers and lawyers have also been subject to attacks for their work in Aceh. Many have fled the region. Indonesiaıs National Human Rights Commission says there have been arbitrary arrests of human rights workers. Last month, an organized mob of 100 thugs attacked the Jakarta office and staff of the Commission for Disappearances and Victims of Violence (KONTRAS) because of the NGOıs criticism of government actions in Aceh.
The Indonesian military shot two German tourists two weeks ago. Luther Hendrik Albert was killed by the TNI, and his wife, Elizabeth Margareth, was shot in the leg. Indonesia has since banned all foreigners from going to Aceh.
Nessen has written articles about Indonesian military repression for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, the Independent (UK) and the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia).
Aceh, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra in the Western end of the Indonesian archipelago, is the site of one of Asia's longest running wars. For almost 27 years, the armed Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has been demanding independence from Indonesia. On December 9, 2002, an important cease-fire agreement (CoHA) was signed between Indonesia and GAM. Both sides were subsequently criticized for violating the agreement. In February, Indonesian security forces began actively undermining the CoHA by targeting peaceful political and human rights activists for arrest. At talks in Tokyo, the Indonesian government demanded that GAM drop its goal of independence and disband in order to continue the talks conditions that GAM could not fulfill. On May 19, 2003, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law in Aceh. A few hours later, hundreds of Indonesian troops poured in and renewed attacks on both GAM and Acehnese civilians. Numerous civilians and five GAM negotiators were arrested. Under martial law they are not allowed legal representation for twenty days; this can be extended to fifty days. The current TNI offensive is only increasing Acehnese desires for independence from Indonesia, already widespread due to the brutality of Indonesian military and police and the lack of Acehnese control over the regionıs rich natural resources.
The income Indonesia draws from the Aceh gas fields is a quarter of the countryıs natural resource revenues; ExxonMobil provides Indonesian troops with economic and material support, and Acehnese activists and the Washington based International Labor Rights Fund charge the oil giant with complicity in TNI murder, kidnapping and rape of Acehnese living near the plant.
Human rights groups estimate some 200 civilians have been killed in Aceh since Indonesia declared martial law on May 19. Over 40,000 people have fled their homes; many are in camps without clean drinking water and adequate sanitation. Indonesia has estimated that over 300,000 people will be displaced in the military operation.
Kurt Biddle is Coordinator of The Indonesia Human Rights Network (IHRN), a U.S.-based grassroots organization working to influence U.S. foreign policy and international economic interests to support democracy, demilitarization, and justice through accountability and rule of law in Indonesia. IHRN seeks to end armed forces repression in Indonesia by exposing it to international scrutiny. IHRN works with and advocates on behalf of people throughout the Indonesian archipelago to strengthen civil society. See www.IndonesiaNetwork.org for further information. Kurt can be reached at email@example.com, (510) 559-7762 phone, (561) 760-0456 eFax.