ACEH: Pro-independence leader arrested

Issue 

BY JAMES BALOWSKI Picture

For the first time since the overthrow of former President Suharto, the Indonesian government has arrested and charged a human rights activist under the notorious "sowing hatred" articles of the Indonesian Criminal Code. The maximum sentence is six year's jail.

On November 22, police in Indonesia's northernmost province of Aceh arrested Muhammad Nazar, a leading independence activist who heads the Aceh Referendum Information Centre (SIRA).

Nazar's arrest follows a series of mass gatherings in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh which began on November 10, culminating in a mass rally of 400,000 people on November 11. Human rights organisations say security forces fired on vehicles and boats trying to reach the capital to attend the rally, killing scores of people and wounding hundreds.

This is the third summons issued by police — Nazar ignored the first two — and follows calls by independence leaders to launch a campaign of civil disobedience to win independence.

According to Agence France Press, on November 14 a declaration in favour of breaking away from Indonesia was approved by a meeting of leaders from across the province. It received an enthusiastic welcome at a huge pro-independence rally attended by some 500,000 people at a state university campus in Banda Aceh.

The mass gathering was informed of the leaders' declaration by Nazar. "The Indonesian government is asked to return the sovereignty of Aceh to the Acehnese nation", he said to applause and yells of "freedom" from the crowd.

The declaration made four other demands: the withdrawal of all Indonesian security forces from the province; the acceptance by Jakarta of responsibility for military atrocities in the province; intervention and mediation by the UN and foreign governments; and, the revoking of the Netherlands' declaration of war against the kingdom of Aceh on March 26, 1873 (separatists argue this declaration of war is proof of Aceh's sovereignty).

"If the five demands are not implemented by November 26, it is called on the Aceh nation to launch a peaceful mass strike starting from November 27 until December 3", the leaders' declaration said.

It is unclear whether the mass strike will go ahead. According to the November 23 South China Morning Post, police chief superintendent Sayed Husaini said Nazar had provoked hostility against the state by circulating pro-independence posters during a protest on August 17, Indonesia's national day. He went on to say that Nazar then organised a mass gathering "as if Aceh were not part of Indonesia", adding that his detention was valid for 20 days and could be extended for a further 40.

Police have denied that the arrest has any connection with the rallies organised by SIRA or the call for a campaign of civil disobedience.

Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, was quoted in the South China Morning Post as saying: "Nazar and other SIRA activists are being punished for organising a peaceful rally attended by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Acehnese. If this is incitement, Indonesian democracy is in serious trouble."

Nazar's arrest marks the first time that the supposed "reformist" government of President Abdurrahman Wahid has used Articles 154 and 155, the haatzai artikelen (spreading hatred) articles against a political activist.

Left over from Dutch colonial law, the statutes were frequently used by the Suharto dictatorship to punish free expression and to discourage pro-independence activities in East Timor. These laws were last used against activists from the People's Democratic Party in 1996.

Head of the Indonesian Legal Aid Association, Hendardi, said the arrest of Nazar on charges of fomenting hostility against the state and disturbing public order, is identical to the methods used by the Suharto regime to arrest pro-democracy activists and other dissidents.

Hendardi said police have been conducting a covert campaign in Aceh to curb the province's independence movement and to preserve instability in the territory.

He added that the only way to resolve the problems in Aceh was to withdraw the military and give the Acehnese "a sense of justice" by taking the human rights violators to court.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian Observer said that at least 150 Acehnese youths living in Jakarta staged a protest outside National Police headquarters, demanding Nazar's release.

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