Wed, 19 Apr 2000

Aceh gears up for joint military-civilian tribunal

BANDA ACEH, Aceh (JP): On the eve of the joint military- civilian tribunal of the Bantaqiah murder case here, Minister of Human Rights Affairs Hasballah M. Saad called on all parties to refrain from seeking revenge.

"I really hope the trial will be fair and transparent so nobody gets hurt. I also urge people not to take advantage of this by demanding a trial of vengeance," Hasballah told the media as he arrived at the Iskandar Muda Airport on Tuesday.

The minister was here to check on preparations for the joint trial of 24 soldiers and a civilian charged with killing Islamic religious teacher Tengku Bantaqiah and 56 of his students in the remote village of Beutong in West Aceh in July of last year.

The trial is the first of five cases recommended by the independent commission to inquire into human rights violations in Aceh after the decade-long antirebel military operations were lifted in 1998.

Six military and civilian judges will preside over the trial at the tightly-secured district court. The trial is expected to start at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. The court will allow only 40 visitors, 15 invitees and 25 members of the media to witness the first hearing.

"If the trial, for instance, sentences a defendant to 10 years imprisonment, some people may be dissatisfied. Therefore I expect the Acehnese to be fair and wise and please don't take the law into your own hands," Hasballah, who is a native of Aceh's troubled regency of Pidie, pleaded.

"I think the government has tried its best to regain the Acehnese's trust."

Top military and police leaders have also vowed to capture Lt. Col. Sudjono, a key witness and suspect in the case who has been missing since November.

The defendants will stand trial for various charges, including premeditated murder, which carries a death penalty.

Aceh's Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) rejected the trial, saying it would sacrifice low- ranked soldiers, whereas the violence was committed by the state through policies decided by military top brass.

"We stick to our demands for an East Timor-style inquiry team such as that in the East Timor case," Aguswandi, the Kontras chief in Aceh, said on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, mass security deployment has reportedly spread fear among people here. A convoy of seven trucks and two armored vehicles cruised the provincial capital of Aceh on Monday, honking their horns.

"We are afraid to go out as troops are everywhere," a resident said.

Despite the deployment of at least 1,000 police personnel to safeguard the trial, a bomb explosion jolted the regency of Aceh Besar on Tuesday when an armed gang blasted the National Land Agency (BPN) office.

"Only one bomb exploded while the other two failed," local police chief Lt. Col. Sayed Husaini said.

A grenade blast also hit Lhokseumawe late on Monday, injuring 17 people, four of whom were military officers.

The incident took place at a security post at the entrance of fertilizer company Asean-Aceh in Krueng Geukeuh district.

North Aceh Police chief Lt. Col. Syafei Aksal said the blast also injured a 12-year-old girl named Cut Meurah Delvia who was sitting in a kiosk next to the security post.

Second Sgt. Asri Saragih, Second Sgt. Bayu, Second. Sgt. T. Simanjurang and Pvt. Zainuddin were taken to Lilawangsa Military Hospital while the civilians were treated at a clinic on the company compound. (50/edt)