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Indonesia Again Filling Prisons With Political Opponents

by Jim Lobe

Aceh And The Grim Shadows Of Civil War
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Two of the world's largest human rights organizations say that the government of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputra is filling the country's jails once again with political prisoners, only five years after all prisoners of conscience were released with the ouster of former President Suharto.

In separate reports, London-based Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for the release all political prisoners and the repeal of Suharto-era legislation used to prosecute and imprison activists who are merely engaged in peaceful political expression.

"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, the director of HRW's Asia division.

"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," he added.

Since, 1998, according to the two reports, at least 46 people have been imprisoned for political expression -- 39 of them since Megawati became president two years ago.

The increased repression, according to the reports, is taking place behind a veneer of a new democratic government and greater freedoms than existed during the Suharto period. In many ways, according to activists interviewed by the two groups, that makes the trend more difficult to fight.

"Under Suharto, there were thousands of political prisoners and everyone knew about it," said defence lawyer Habib Rachman, who was interviewed by HRW. "People would go to the prisons every day to visit them out of solidarity. Now, no one knows about it and they are forgotten."

Most human rights concerns are instead focused on the situation in rebellious Aceh province where the armed forces (TNI) launched what is being described as a brutal counter-insurgency operation in May. Although journalists -- except those who have been "embedded" with TNI forces -- have been excluded from the natural gas-rich province, reports of hundreds killed and scores detained, beaten and tortured have leaked out in recent weeks amid growing concern among both Indonesian and international human rights groups.

But attention should also be paid to what is happening to ordinary political activists who are being prosecuted in Jakarta itself under provisions that still exist in the country's criminal code that, for example, punishes "insulting the President or Vice-President" with up to six years' imprisonment. Other crimes under the act include "sowing hate" against the government.

Since late 1992, according to the two groups, at least 14 political activists have been sentenced to prison and three others are facing trial under the law. In most cases, the defendants have been arrested after they participated in peaceful political 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, who heads Amnesty's Asia and Pacific Program.

Last October, Nanag and Muzakkir, two young political activists, were found guilty by a Jakarata court and sentenced to one year in prison after expressing their dissatisfaction with the pace of political reform by stamping on pictures of Megawati and her vice-president, Hamzah Haz.

Their treatment provoked a major debate in the domestic media about the implications of the prosecution. An investigation launched by Human Rights Watch, however, found that they were neither the first nor the last to be prosecuted under the laws that actually date from the colonial period.

Last spring, for example, Ignatius Mahendra, chairman of the Yogyakarta branch of the National Democratic Students' League, and Yoyok Eko Widodo, a member of the Street Buskers Union, were among the latest to be imprisoned under charges of insulting the executive. Each was sentenced to three years in prison after being found guilty of burning portraits of the president and vice-president.

In July, Muhammed Nazar, a political activist in Aceh, was sentenced to five years in prison for "spreading hatred against the government" by participating in peaceful pro-independence meetings earlier this year.

"(D)raconian colonial-era laws -- which most Indonesians assumed had been relegated to the dustbin of history -- in the Indonesian Criminal Code have been dredged up to facilitate politically motivated prosecutions, and once again are being used as a political tool to silence dissent," the HRW report said. It added that the trend was "particularly worrisome" in view of next year's scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections.

"The repeal of these laws is long overdue," Amnesty's Massage said. "Any legal provisions that criminalise peaceful political activities must be repealed as soon as possible." She also called for Megawati to commit herself publicly to cease all such prosecutions which "call into question (the) commitment to a pluralistic society based on respect for human rights."

The HRW report, entitled 'A Return to the New Order?' suggested that the prosecutions are related in part to her weak political position. She took office only after her predecessor, Abdurrahman Wahid, resigned, and she has come to depend heavily on the TNI as a major source of support, particularly given her uneasy relationship with the Islamic parties in her coalition government.

The military has used her weakness to enhance its political clout behind the scenes and promote new legislation that would further entrench its role and power in policing and other civilian functions. One proposed article would permit the military to take action against any activities deemed to constitute a threat to the nation's sovereignty, or territorial integrity, without civilian or even presidential oversight.

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Albion Monitor January 14, 2004 (

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