Sun, 06 Mar 2005

From: Reuters

Australian banned by Jakarta claims no rebel links

Paul Tait, Reuters, Sydney, Australia

An Australian academic banned from Indonesia said on Saturday incorrect reports that he had links to separatist rebels in tsunami-hit Aceh province could have been the reason he was refused entry this week.

Edward Aspinall was turned away in Jakarta on Tuesday on his way to work for an Australian aid agency in Aceh -- where more than 220,000 people are dead or missing after the Dec. 26 tsunami -- threatening to test ties between the uneasy neighbors.

It was the first time an Australian academic had been refused entry since the election of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last October.

Indonesia has long been sensitive about foreign academics who comment on issues such as separatism and terrorism, but Australian media described Aspinall's treatment as reminiscent of restrictions imposed by former president Soeharto.

Aspinall said he had a business visa allowing him entry, but was told in Jakarta his name had been placed on a blacklist on Feb. 25. He said he was given no further explanation and put back on the same plane and sent home.

Aspinall rejected Indonesian media reports that he was closely linked with Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels, who held last month another round of peace talks in Helsinki with the Indonesian government aimed at ending three decades of violence.

"There was an article in The Jakarta Post saying I'd become an adviser to a GAM member, which is entirely false," Aspinall told Reuters.

"Presumably, there might be some confusion about what my relationship is with GAM," he said.

During the latest round of Finnish-mediated talks, Australian academic Damien Kingsbury acted as an adviser for the GAM separatists, who are studying Indonesia's latest offer of "self rule" for the gas-rich province on the north of Sumatra island.

"I would hope they wouldn't be confusing me with somebody else," Aspinall said.

Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said he did not know why Aspinall had been refused entry, but did not believe his case should be treated as "a barometer" of academic freedom in Indonesia.

"I don't think we are hinging the degree of academic freedom in Indonesia on the travel plans of Mr. Aspinall," Marty told reporters in Jakarta on Friday.

A frequent visitor to Indonesia and one of Australia's leading experts on the country, Aspinall said he had no difficulty with authorities while he worked as a translator for Australian doctors treating tsunami victims in Aceh in January.

He said he had written to Indonesia's ambassador to Australia seeking more information but had not received a reply.

"I can only guess it was something I said," Aspinall said.

Australia has had an often uneasy relationship with its northern neighbor, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

That relationship hit a low when Australia led a multinational intervention force into East Timor in 1999 when militias backed by elements of the Indonesian Military went on the rampage after Timorese voted for independence from Jakarta.

The relationship began to improve dramatically after Yudhoyono's election and after Australia pledged almost US$800 million in tsunami aid to Indonesia.

But it took a backward step this week when Australia voiced its displeasure over the relatively light sentence handed to Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, prompting Indonesia to say that foreign countries should respect its judicial system.

Ba'asyir was sentenced to 30 months in jail for involvement in the October 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, 88 of them Australians.