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Open Letter to President Habibie on Aceh

January 11, 1999

His Excellency President B.J. Habibie
Istana Merdeka
Jakarta Pusat

Dear President Habibie,

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned by the January 9 attack on Acehnese detainees by a military unit in which four men were bludgeoned to death and twenty-three others were severely beaten. We understand three of the latter are near death. While we welcome the prompt arrest of some the perpetrators and will be closely monitoring their courts-martial, we urge you to ensure that all of those involved in the attack are identified and punished.

In addition, as important as the prosecutions are, we believe this attack was preventable, and we strongly urge you to take steps to ensure that it does not happen again. The attack might have been prevented by the following:

1. Ensuring that the army does not get involved in arrests, detention, and interrogation of suspects. According to Indonesia's Criminal Procedure Code, only the police have the authority to investigate crimes and make arrests. The Indonesian army, however, has always reserved the right to arrest and detain people during counterinsurgency operations. General Wiranto has repeatedly said that Aceh is no longer a zone of special military operations, but since late December and the sending of hundreds of troops to the region, that is exactly what it has become. Particularly since the brutal deaths of seven soldiers on January 3, the army is as much involved in the arrest, detention, and interrogation of suspects as it ever was during the eight years that Aceh had special military status. We urge you to prohibit the army from taking on these functions and believe that serious human rights abuses could be substantially reduced as a result.

2. Prosecuting past abuses in Aceh. Since the resignation of President Soeharto, a broad range of people of Aceh have been demanding that military personnel responsible for serious and systematic abuses between 1989 and 1998 be investigated and punished. With thousands of people killed, "disappeared," tortured, or held, sometimes for years, in unacknowledged military detention, the Indonesian armed forces came to be regarded as the enemy by many Acehnese. That was clear last August 31, after Aceh's status as a special military zone was ended, when departing troops were stoned. The killing of the soldiers on January 3 was a horrible crime and must be prosecuted, but the cycle of violence will not be stopped by sending in more troops with unlimited authority to search homes and unlimited powers of arrest and detention. It is critically important that the people of Aceh begin to get a sense that justice will be done: justice will be attainable only by going back and prosecuting the worst abuses of the past.

3. Protecting detainees. The January 3 murders of the soldiers should have been an added reason to ensure that police, rather than the army, had responsibility for detainees. It now appears that soldiers from Infantry Battalion 113 based in Birueuen, the same unit as the dead men, were the leaders of the attack on the Indonesian National Youth Building where the detainees were being held. Given the possibility of the violence, extra precautions should have been taken to ensure that soldiers from Battalion 113 had no role in the operations taking place against suspected perpetrators of the January 3 killings and no access to the detainees. There is no reason why a civilian building should have been used as a detention center in any case.

Finally, we urge you to ensure that all those with chain-of-command responsibility for the troops involved in the attack and for the protection of the detainees are appropriately punished, as well as the perpetrators themselves.


Sidney Jones
Executive Director
Asia Division
Human Rights Watch

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Last modified: June 22, 2000