Since Suharto seized power in Indonesia in October 1965, impunity has been deeply entrenched in Indonesia. Although the fall of the dictator in May 1998 led to the introduction of the basic mechanisms of democracy, it has done nothing to end the scourge of impunity.
The 2009 elections have emphatically returned President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to power and he now has another opportunity to add more substance to the democratic transition by addressing the fundamental problem posed by the absence of accountability for serioushuman rights crimes.
Impunity, which means crime without punishment, poses a serious threat to human rights. When a crime is perpetrated, under the rule of law, the perpetrator should be called to account. This is clearly enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 8 of which states:
‘Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunal for acts violating the fundamental rightsgranted him by the constitution or by law.’
During the first six months after Suharto’s seizure of power, it is estimated that up to one million people were killed in massacres that swept the country. The killings were committed by members of the Indonesian Armed Forces or by mobs acting at the instigation of, and equipped by, the military. Tens of thousands of people were arrested across the country and held without trial, many for up to 14 years.
The wave of massacres and mass arrests is recognised as one of the worst crimes against humanity in the twentieth century. In 1977, Amnesty International declared that ‘in no other country in the world have so many political prisoners been held without trial for so many years.’
In 1969, thirteen thousand male prisoners were banished to Buru, a remote island surrounded by a shark-infested sea, from which there was no escape. The men were beyond the reach of their families some 2,000 kms from their homes in Java and other parts of the country, and subjected to a harsh physical environment and unremitting forced labour. Hundreds of prisoners died from starvation and from untreated injuries; they were bereft of even the most basic medical treatment.
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