Thu, 27 Apr 2000

Aceh rights abuse tribunal to continue, judges say

BANDA ACEH, Aceh (JP): Judges in the joint military-civilian tribunal here ruled on Wednesday to proceed with the trial of 24 soldiers and a civilian charged with mass killings in West Aceh last year.

In their pretrial decision, the panel of five judges, led by civilian judge Ruslan Dahlan, overruled the defense plea for the charges to be dropped.

Defense lawyers earlier argued that the soldiers should be tried in a regular court-martial. They also objected to the tribunal on the grounds it was not held at the site of the incident, as ruled by the Criminal Code, and the defendants were carrying out their superiors' commands.

The soldiers, mostly from the Army Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad), and a civilian named Thaleb Amman Suar would face the death sentence if convicted of the premeditated murder of Islamic religious teacher Tengku Bantaqiah and no less than 57 of his students in Beutong Ateuh village.

The Army contended the victims were separatist rebels killed during a shootout with troops.

After rejecting the defense plea, the judges heard testimony of the first witness, Lt. Col. Heronimus Guru.

Heronimus, the commander of Kostrad's 328 battalion, jointly led a team of 215 troops assigned to quell a rebel movement -- allegedly involving Bantaqiah and his followers -- along with the now missing Lt. Col. Sudjono, then the intelligence chief of the Lilawangsa Military Command.

Heronimus said he helped arrange a security operation at Beutong Ateuh village, which the Army suspected was a rebel hideout.

"Apart from the official notification, we were briefed directly about the operation at the house of Lilawangsa Military Commander Col. Syafnil Armen. We were to arrest group of rioters, Bantaqiah and his followers."

He said that based on the intelligence report, Syafnil said Bantaqiah had about 300 followers and kept around 100 guns and various land mines.

Heronimus said the incident started when one of his troops, Capt. Anton Yuliantoro, was chased by three armed men as soon as the troops arrived in the village. One or two shots were heard in the area.

"I ordered Anton as a company commander to stop the shooting. Later I found that Anton was the one who fired the shots in defense against the three attackers," Heronimus said.

Scheduled testimony from Nur Farisah and Nur Lia, both wives of Tengku Bantaqiah, was not heard. Details on their absence from the hearing were unavailable.

The trial was adjourned until Saturday.

Meanwhile, security operations to quell rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) continued on Wednesday prior to the visit of President Abdurrahman Wahid to Langsa in East Aceh on Sunday.

GAM members intercepted a convoy of three Police Mobile Brigade and Gegana vehicles in the Melayu area of Indrajaya district, Pidie, at about 2:30 p.m., police said. The rebels opened fire on the vehicles, but no fatalities were reported. (50/51/edt)