Bantaqiah trial, Aceh: an examination of the indictment

25 Apr 2000

Serious flaws have already begun to emerge in the proceedings of the koneksitas (joint civilian and military) court which is hearing the case of the massacre of the religious teacher, Teungku Bantaqiah, members of his family and dozens of his pupils. The trial began on 19 April in Banda Aceh with the presentation of the indictment by the prosecution.

The twenty-five defendants include 24 soldiers from the local territorial command and from the army's strategic command, Kostrad; they include three low-ranking officers, a captain and two lieutenants. The other 21 soldiers are NCOs and privates. One civilian is also on trial.

Until now attention has been focused on the disappearance of Lieutenant-Colonel Sudjono who was to have been the chief suspect, but after being interrogated last November by military interrogators, he disappeared and the army has failed to explain what happened to him or whether he is dead or alive.

However, according to the indictment read out in court on 19 April, three lieutenant-colonels were directly involved in the military operation in which so many defenceless and innocent people lost their lives. Two of these officers directed the operation on the ground and the third gave the order one week before for the operation to be mounted.

The operation mounted against the religious school run by Teungku Bantaqiah on 23 July 1999 took place on the orders of Lieutenant-Colonel Syafnil Armen who was and still is commander of the 011/Lilawangsa district military command in North Aceh. The indictment alleges that Syafnil Armen had obtained information to the effect that Teungku Bantaqiah and his followers were in possession of one hundred firearms which had been hidden in the grounds of the school premises and that the school had a force of 300 men. Acting on the basis of this information (which must have come from Sudjono who was his intelligence assistant), Lt-Colonel Syafnil Armen sent a cable on 15 July 1999 to five army units which ordered that an operation be launched 'to search for, find, approach and arrest leaders of the GPK (the term used for the Free Aceh Movement) and sympathisers, alive or dead'. Of these five officers, two were commanders of district territorial commands, two were commanders of Kostrad air-borne units and one was his own intelligence officer, Lt-Colonel Sudjono.

The first question is, since the order for the operation came from this officer, why is he not on trial on charges of instigating the operation?

The indictment also states that on the basis of this order, a joint force of 215 men was set up under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Heronimus Guru, commander of the 328 Kostrad infantry battalion based in Cilodong, West Java who acted as the field commander during the operation, while Lieutenant-Colonel Sudjono, intelligence chief of the 011/Lilawangsa district command was appointed to supervise the operation and lead the way to the site.

The second question is: why are these two officers not on trial? We know that Sudjono has 'disappeared' but what about Heronimus Guru who still a Kostrad officer?

According to the indictment, the section of the joint force under Lt-Colonel Heronimus Guru was divided into two teams; one was charged to capture and overpower the victims while the other provided the back-up. The first team was under orders to arrest the targets alive or dead. The back-up team was under the command of Major (Infantry) Endi whose task it was to protect the team responsible for capturing the victims.

This major is also, mysteriously, not included among those in the dock.

The indictment states that, after making contact with Teungku Bantaqiah, Sudjono communicated with Heronimus Guru and asked him: 'Shall we bump them all off?' There was no reply from Heronimus Guru, whereupon Sudjono retreated. The joint force then conducted a search of the area and ordered all the men in the school building to come out into the open, to get down on their haunches and show their identity cards. They were then ordered to strip down to their pants.

The team under the command of Sudjono then returned to the location while the other team blocked the approach roads and a bridge to prevent outsiders from entering the area. The shooting then began. Altogether 34 people were shot and died instantly, including Teungku Bantaqiah, and 23 were wounded. The wounded men were ordered onto an army truck and driven away; they were later shot dead and their bodies thrown down a ravine.

Another mystery is the fact that Lt-Colonel Syafnil Armen's Lilawangsa military command covers North Aceh whereas the massacre took place in Beutong Ateuh which is in West Aceh. In other words, it was clearly part of an over-arching military operation taking place at the time.

In fact, the Bantaqiah Massacre was the last in a series of five massacres that occurred in various parts of Aceh - one in East Aceh, three in North Aceh and this one in West Aceh - during the period from January until July 1999 when Operasi Wibawa 99 (Operation Assert Authority) was in force. [See 'A Reign of Terror' by TAPOL, March 2000] Although formally speaking, Operasi Wibawa was under the command of Polri, the National Police Force, the Bantaqiah Massacre was carried out by a joint force comprised of army units, territorial as well as non- organic (Kostrad). The indictment however presents the operation against the Bantaqiah religious school as an isolated incident.

The defendants are being charged under Article 340 of the Criminal Code for murder in conspiracy with others, which carries a maximum penalty of death. There are four subsidiary charges, including a lesser murder charge which carries a miaximum penaly of 15 years, and two charges for torture.

The defendants are being charged as individuals while neither the district military command and its commander nor the regional military command and its commander are being held responsible for the operation, nor is the special operation, Operasi Wibawa 99 under its police commander, under whose overall strategy this massacre was conducted. Although the charge of murder is being preferred, it is still within the bounds of an ordinary crime as defined under Indonesia's Criminal Code. The Bantaqiah Massacre was not an ordinary crime of murder or torture but part of a campaign of violence organised by the armed forces and the police against the people of Aceh and should therefore be treated as a crime against humanity.

A final word about the disappearance of Sudjono. Since this is still shrouded in mystery, it is not known whether he went absent without leave or was 'disappeared' by others in the army to protect more senior officers from exposures which he might have disclosed in court. The indictment strengthens the first hypothesis for the following reason: When he realised that he was to be the only senior officer to be charged while the two other lieutenant-colonels directly responsible were being spared, he can reasonably be expected to have decided not to hang around and become the fall-guy, possibly facing the heavist sentence. As the intelligence officer for the Lilawangsa district command, he may have been chosen to face charges in order to be blamed for supplying false or unreliable information which led his commander to initiate the lethal attack, on the grounds that the Bantaqiah school was a base of the armed Free Aceh Movement. (Others who investigated the site of the massacre shortly after it occurred, strongly denied that any firearms were stored there.) In his absence, he is likely anyway to be blamed for causing the operation to take place because of his 'faulty' information.

Be that as it may, this is a distraction from the key issue, that the Bantaqiah Massacre was part of a strategic military operation which is still continuing in Aceh today, under the guise of a more recently devised operation pursuing essentially the same purposes, that of intimidating and terrorising the people of Aceh. A koneksitas court cannot be expected to treat this as a crime against humanity. This can only be done by a specially created ad hoc human rights court.