Decades on death row

April 10, 1991

By Alison Murray

February 1991: Asep Suryaman has been told his execution is imminent.

Cipinang Prison is a civilian jail in East Jakarta. "Ordinary prisoners are held there, 18-20 men to a cell, and in a separate wing the political prisoners are confined two to a cell. At the moment they include a student activist, Bambang Beathor Suryadi, serving four and a half years for pamphleteering, six Fretilin freedom fighters from East Timor, Dr Thomas Wainggai from West Papua and 19 "communists" still imprisoned in connection with the "attempted coup" of 1965 ("G30S/PKI" in the official acronym, standing for September 30 Movement/Indonesian Communist Party).

More than 25 years later, six of these 19 are still under sentence of death. From the late 1960s to 1985, there were no executions, and it seemed that the death sentences would not be carried out, but the killings were resumed.

Those on death row are being picked off at strategic moments by the government as a grim reminder to the population of the consequences of "communism".

At Cipinang, two army sergeants of the Cakrabirawa Regiment — the "Palace Guards" held responsible for the coup attempt — were shot in 1988: Sukarjo and Giyadi Wigyosuharyo. Anastasius Buang, also of the Cakrabirawa, died in mysterious circumstances in September 1989; he was buried before family members could see the body.

Four more of the Cakrabirawa were shot in February 1990: Norbertus Rohayan, Simon Petrus Solaiman, Johannes Surono and Satar Suryanto.

The six death row prisoners still remaining were taken from their cells in March 1990, but the executions were not carried out, apparently due to international pressure. The six are Asep Suryaman, Bungkus, Iskandar Subekti, Marsudi, Ruslan Widjayasastra and Sukatno.

It is hard to conceive of the mental torture they and their families have had to endure, waiting decades for execution. And when it comes, it will be in secret: families are not told, and the government admits its killings only after questions are raised internationally.

In another part of Cipinang prison, "extreme right" or "fanatic Muslim" prisoners are held. Some of these are also sentenced to death, and there seems to be a pattern of "balance" in the executions of right- and left-wing prisoners. In February, Azhar bin Mohammed Safar, a Muslim sentenced for hijacking a Garuda plane, was shot. Then Asep Suryaman was told that, to even the score, his execution was imminent. By mid-March, he had no further news, suggesting that the execution might be delayed until the end of the Ramadan fasting period later this month.

There is some opportunity for association among the prisoners, and the student Beathor has established a discussion group.

The remaining G30S prisoners seem to have maintained their spirits remarkably. They listen to short-wave radio every day and have an understanding of world politics and events. Most of them seem in reasonable health, thanks to family efforts to supplement their diets, and are charming and communicative with visitors. Their wives also convey great calmness and resilience.

The following G30S prisoners, three of them threatened with execution, are a cross-section.

Asep Suryaman. Now aged 66, he was arrested in 1971 and sentenced to death in 1975. The trial was something of a showcase and was well publicised because of the outspoken defence by the now-famous lawyer Yap Thiem Hien. There was no evidence of Asep's involvement in G30S, and he was charged retroactively under the Subversion Act, which became law only in 1969. Asep was part of the PKI "Special Bureau" (intelligence agency) and, after 1965, was on the party's provincial committee in central Java.

Colonel A. Latief. Latief was arrested in 1966; his house was ransacked and his family left with nothing. He was shot and held in a small mouldy isolation cell for 11 years; one of his legs is permanently crippled. He was finally tried in 1978 as one of the three key G30S "plotters" and sentenced to life imprisonment. His statements show that General Suharto, now president, knew of G30S beforehand and encouraged Latief's paranoia about the Council of Generals, which the coup organisers hoped to forestall. Since Latief's knowledge of what really happened in 1965 is second only to Suharto's, there is some mystery as to why he is still alive; the other two "plotters", Untung and Suparjo, were shot in the months following the coup.

Ruslan Widjayasastra is now aged 74 and is the frailest of the Cipinang prisoners. He is in need of medication. He was a member of the PKI Central Committee and deputy chair of the All-Indonesia Trade Union Federation until 1964. After the coup, Ruslan joined the PKI underground movement in Blitar, where he was arrested in 1968. He was sentenced to death in 1974, and all pleas for clemency have been rejected.

Professor Iskandar Subekti. Fluent in several languages, he was in the foreign affairs section of the PKI Secretariat and assistant to Aidit, chairperson of the PKI. Now 69, he was arrested in 1968 for his part in the underground Blitar movement and sentenced to death in 1972.

General Umar Dhani, a strong and charismatic figure, was head of the Air Force in 1965. Sentenced to life imprisonment in isolation, he should have been released in 1985, since life sentences in Indonesia were held to be a 20-year maximum. However, after he had received his letter of release, Suharto changed the rules.

Dr Subandrio. Also held in isolation, Subandrio, now 76, was President Sukarno's vice president and foreign minister, and was also in charge of the state intelligence unit, BPI. His trial in 1966 was a publicity exercise aimed at Sukarno, who still had popular support. Subandrio was not an active supporter of the PKI, and on September 30, 1965, was not even in Jakarta. He was sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment. His son and wife died in 1974, and he has remarried while in prison.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.