Political prisoners in Indonesia and East Timor


When BJ Habibie took over as president of Indonesia in May, one of his first acts was to free two high-profile political prisoners. Other releases have followed -- at one point, the government was promising to release all political prisoners. But hundreds of people, some of them nonviolent activists for social justice serving very long terms, remain in Indonesian jails on political charges, and the pace of releases has slowed to a standstill. There are no more promises that all political prisoners will be released, and indeed, without international pressure, it is by no means certain that any more will be released at all. It is generally felt that the military has dictated to Habibie who may be freed and who may not, and that releases have reached the limit that the military is willing to accept.

This remains a critical moment for Indonesian activists in prison. To a large extent, the Habibie government follows the instructions of the military, but Habibie is also extremely vulnerable to outside pressure and very concerned about international opinion. If the authorities become aware that the world is concerned about those who remain in prison, it is still possible that they will decide to release them.

Cipinang Prison

One Indonesian activist has referred to Cipinang Prison in Jakarta -- where many political prisoners are held -- as "the best place in the country for reconciliation". In Cipinang, members of the old Communist Party of Indonesia have developed friendships with devout Muslims, and East Timorese and West Papuan independence activists with Javanese students and trade unionists -- in fact, some of the Indonesian activists most involved in working for human rights and self-determination in East Timor became engaged in the issue by spending time in Cipinang with Timorese prisoners.

Among those who remain in prison are eight members of the PRD, a small political party which was illegal during the Suharto years. Though the PRD has now been declared a legal organisation by a Jakarta court, and though they are not charged with anything remotely resembling a criminal act, these eight -- who were all arrested in 1996 -- seem unlikely to be released any time soon. The charges against them are that they organised labour rallies, called for a referendum on the status of East Timor, and campaigned for a more open political system that would be less dominated by the military. Budiman Sudjatmiko, the chair of the PRD, is serving a thirteen-year sentence for these "crimes". Four members of the PRD were released from prison recently [see interview with Wilson bin Nurtiyas] but there seem to be no plans to release the remaining eight.

East Timorese prisoners

Many East Timorese are serving sentences in Indonesian prisons. Among them are three survivors of the Santa Cruz massacre of 1991, jailed for participating in a peaceful march in East Timor at which hundreds of others were slaughtered by the Indonesian military. One of the three is serving a life sentence. Two others are in prison for organising a small, peaceful rally in Jakarta to protest against the massacre.

West Papuans

There are also many West Papuan prisoners. Among them are five men arrested late in September for trying to organise a meeting to discuss the territory's political status. A sixth man, a traditional leader and former MP, tried to secure the release of the five by turning himself over to the police in their place, but in fact he was arrested and charged and the others were not released.

Another prisoner in Cipinang who must be mentioned, though he can't be strictly considered a "prisoner for peace", is Xanana Gusmão, former leader of the armed resistance in East Timor and current president of the National Council of Timorese Resistance. Though Xanana clearly did engage in acts of violence, he was also instrumental in encouraging the emergence of a nonviolent civilian resistance. Groups around the world, including Amnesty International, are now campaigning for his release, in part because he is the most universally respected figure in East Timor (along with Bishop Belo), and it is strongly felt that no peace process can be either legitimate or successful if Xanana is not directly involved in negotiations.

Some of the people included on the list have not been formally charged with anything, but we believe they are being held for nonviolent political activities. This is the case with several Timorese who are thought to be in custody because of their involvement with the unarmed clandestine resistance.

Torture and disappearances

Torture is a common event, particularly for East Timorese, West Papuan and Acehnese prisoners. Those who have not yet been formally charged and who are held in more remote locations are at special risk of torture, most commonly by beatings and electrical shocks.

Some of the people on this list are "disappeared". The government has admitted that most or all of the "disappeared" were abducted by the military for political reasons; they claim, however, to be unaware of the activists' current location or condition. Since you cannot send cards to the "disappeared", please send cards to the government of Indonesia, mentioning them by name and inquiring as to their whereabouts. (We have listed only a few of the many "disappeared".)

Partial list of disappeared activists

Felisberto Maria dos Santos: Timorese, arrested May 1997 and believed to be held because of involvement in the clandestine resistance. He was tortured before his "disappearance". Place of detention unknown.
Petrus Bima Anugerah: Philosophy student and member of the PRD, disappeared some time after 31 March 1998. Place of detention unknown.
Herman Hendrawan: Student and democracy activist, disappeared in March 1998 after attending a press conference in the offices of the Legal Aid Institute (LBH). Place of detention unknown.
Suyat: member of the PRD, arrested in Java in February 1998. Place of detention unknown.

Send letters asking for information about these disappeared activists to: B.J. Habibie, President of the Republic of Indonesia, Istana Negara, Gedung Binagraha, Jl. Veteran, Jakarta Pusat, Indonesia.

Maggie Helwig is a member of the WRI Council who has been working on Indonesia and East Timor for many years.
For more information, contact the Indonesian human rights campaign, Tapol, 111 Northwood Road, Thornton Heath, Surrey CR7 8HW, Britain (+44 181 771 2904; fax 653 0322; email tapol@gn.apc.org).
The August/September 1997 Peace News carried a longer article on the political prisoners in Cipinang.
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