Seeking justice in Aceh still has a long way to go

13 Apr 2000

In an interview in today's Suara Pembaruan, the attorney-general Marzuki Darusman reveals that he has serious misgivings about the trial which is due to start next week in Banda Aceh. Altogether 25 defendants will be in the dock, of whom 24 are soldiers and one is a civilian. They will face charges in connection with the massacre of more than fifty people at a religious school in Beutong Ateuh, West Aceh on 23 July 1999; the head of the school, Tengku Bantaqiah, and several members of his family were among those shot dead.

The trial will be heard before a koneksitas or 'inter-connection' court combining military and civilian judges. It was announced yesterday that the panel of judges will include three military judges and four civilian judges while the team of prosecutors will include military and civilian prosecutors.

According to several statements made recently by human rights minister Hasballah M Saad, the trial will commence at a court in Banda Aceh on 17 April but it now appears that this is the date on which the trial documents will be delivered to the court; proceedings will start at an unspecified date thereafter. The 25 suspects were transferred to Banda Aceh under heavy guard yesterday to await trial.

In his interview with Suara Pembaruan, Attorney General Darusman acknowledged that it had taken far too long to get the Bantaqiah trial started. He said that this was one of five primary cases which, according to the recommendations contained in a report by the Independent Investigation Commission set up when Habibie was still president, should be brought to trial without delay. The Commission's findings were made public last November. In other words it has taken six months to get this trial started.

Darusman said that he would be in favour of the other four cases being heard before a human rights court rather than the type of court being used for the Bantaqiah trial as the koneksitas mechanism had been dogged by many difficulties; he refused to elaborate on the problems.

He said that it was possible to set up human rights courts on the basis of the presidential decreee in lieu of law (Perlu No 1/1999) which was enacted by former President Habibie, adding that although this decree had been revoked by parliament, it remains in force until parliament enacts a replacement law. This refers to the draft Human Rights Court Law which is due to be submitted to the DPR when it reassembles in mid-May.

Darusman said that by using his preferred method, the four trials could be handled more speedily than the Bantaqiah trial.

Asked to comment on the attorney-general's comments, Asmara Nababan, the secretary-general of the National Human Rights Commission, said he was in total agreement, not only because the pre-trial interrogations would be handled more quickly but also to avoid creating the impression that the handling of human rights trials in Aceh is discriminatory. (It has been acknowledged by all concerned in Indonesia that grave human rights abuses in East Timor will have to be tried before human rights courts.) From the start, he said, he urged the attorney-general to try these cases before human rights courts. 'It's too late now to change the arrangements for the Bantaqiah trial but the other four must be heard before human rights courts,' he said.

The koneksitas procedure means that the pre-trial investigations have been handled by personnel from the attorney-general's office along with investigators from the police and the military police.

Asmara said he was sceptical about the impartiality of the Bantaqiah trial because of the involvement of personnel from the security forces in the pre-trial preparations.

Darusman expressed the hope that, despite its shortcomings, the Bantaqiah trial would proceed well, with accountability for those involved. He hoped the trial would be objective and would help to deal not only with those involved on the ground but also the men who ordered the action. However, when asked about the disappearance of the key witness, Lt-Colonel Sudjono, Darusman said that he was still awaiting clarifications from the army. 'I have been told that they are still searching for him but I hven't received any information from the armed forces commander in chief,' he said.

Low-ranking soldiers being charged

Meanwhile, the list of the defendants at the Bantaqiah trial has now been made public. The highest ranking soldier is a captain. There are two second-lieutenants and all the other 21 soldiers are sergeants or privates. This is hardly a line-up that can be expected to reveal the line of command, as Darusman seems to hope. On the contrary, the removal from the scene of Lt- Colonel Sudjono is clearly motivated by a determination within the army to protect the real authors of this criminal massacre.

Within President Wahid's government, there are clearly conflicting lines of thought about how to deal with the need for justice in Aceh, where more than seven thousand human rights cases were identified by the commission which undertook investigations in Aceh last year. And this only relates to the abuses before the current military operations began towards the end of 1999.

Human rights minister Hasballah has clearly opted for speed, in his anxiety to get the trials - any trials - started. He knows how angry the Acehnese people are at the delay in bringing the perpetrators to justice and fervently hopes that trials will dampen people's anger and impatience with Jakarta and even, perhaps, lessen the pressure for a referendum. Although his brief is human rights, he is clearly pursuing a political agenda and one that serves the interests of Jakarta. Darusman on the other hand recognises the serious shortcomings of the koneksitas procedure. While trying to make the best of a bad job in this month's trial, he now opts for a human rights court under Perpu No 1/1999. However, he seems to have overlooked the fact that that decree was not retroactive (see paragraph 24) and formally speaking cannot provide the basis for the trial of grave crimes perpetrated before the decree was enacted in September last year. It remains to be seen how he will surmount this obstacle.

The konseksitas procedure has been long-drawn-out precisely because there must have been substantial disagreements between the civilian and military personnel involved, a kind of 'tug- of'war' over who is charged and the nature of the charges. with the civilian personnel seeking to ensure that the trial comes as close as possible to meting out justice under the circumsatances and the military men protecting their fellow officers.

When a military court is used, as has been the case with all past cases of human rights abuses, the military are able to handle the trials as a law unto themselves and ensure that charges are kept within the realm of 'procedural errors' or 'exceeding orders', while protecting the men behind the crimes.

With the Bantaqiah trial now fast approaching, protest against the trial is growing in Aceh. The security forces will create a powerful wall of protection around the courthouse but even if they keep the protesting crowds at bay, the proceedings as they unfold are likely to intensify distrust. The sad fact for Indonesia is that the Bantaqiah trial is likely neither to mete out justice to those responsible nor to create an atmosphere that is more conducive to the central government's purposes. As for the people of Aceh, they are likely to get no satisfaction at all out of these trials and Hasballah's hopes for a calmer atmosphere in Aceh are likely to be dashed, sooner rather than later.