Thu, 28 Aug 2003

Assessing the govt's ISA adoption proposal

Imanuddin Razak, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

It was only three days after a powerful bomb exploded at the JW Marriott Hotel, South Jakarta, on Aug. 5 that the country's security authorities, through Minister of Defense Matori Abdul Djalil, came up with the idea of adopting Singapore's or Malaysia's Internal Security Act (ISA) in an attempt to combat the intensifying terror attacks at home.

The minister's proposal was later supported by Indonesian Military (TNI) Commander Gen. Endriartono Sutarto and Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Gen. (ret) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

From last October to August this year, the nation has experienced seven major bombings nationwide. Prominent among them are the Oct. 12 bomb blasts in Bali, which killed 202 people, and the recent Marriott blast, which killed 12.

A number of top security officials have blamed the attacks on the security apparatus' lack of a legal umbrella -- the legal basis for them to take preemptive measures to detect and prevent such attacks from recurring, as well as to tackle them.

On the other hand, observers and analysts blamed the country's poor intelligence in identifying and responding to such attacks, although they basically agreed with and supported the government's commitment to combat the terror attacks.

Their only objection to the introduction of ISA here is that it would give rise to the risk of human rights abuses in the enforcement process and that it could curb criticism of the government's policies.

They fear that unlike the ISA imposed in Singapore and Malaysia, the "rubber" (loose) articles in Indonesia's version of ISA would lead to arbitrary arrests, killings and other violent and repressive approaches, as experienced during the era of the New Order under president Soeharto.

Indeed, under ISA, the Singapore government, for instance, could detain a person who posed an active threat to Singapore without trial for a period of up to two years. Yet, there are clauses in its ISA stipulating that the detention is subject to a review by an advisory board appointed by the Singapore president under the Constitution of Singapore.

As to the protection of the rights of a suspect and to prevent abuse of the law, Singapore's ISA contains clear legal limits, requirements and spells out accountability.

As an example, a person arrested under the ISA can be detained for up to 48 hours only upon the knowledge of the commissioner of police. If someone is to be detained for more than 14 days, the commissioner must report the case to the minister of home affairs.

If someone is to be detained for more than 30 days from the time of arrest, the police must secure approval from the minister of home affairs and the president of the Republic of Singapore, too.

After only a week of public debate, the Indonesian government, however, announced that it had scrapped the plan to introduce ISA and instead turned to existing Antiterrorism Law No. 15/2003, in its search to strengthen the legal basis against terrorism.

But the government's decision to change its mind and drop the proposal to adopt ISA was somewhat unusual; it has become common practice here that no matter how strong the public's opposition to government policies, the government would carry on anyway, particularly in the absence of objection by the legislature.

The fact that the House of Representatives has frequently supported the government in many of the latter's policies also casts doubt in the mind of the public that its objection to the adoption of ISA would, this time, be listened to by the government.

The government's rapid move was also unusual, given that there has been no commission hearing or plenary session of the House held to discuss and review the ISA proposal. Only top officials from among the country's top 10 political parties and their representatives have separately expressed their disagreement.

Common sense then suggests a "greater force" than mere strong public criticism behind the shelving of the proposal to adopt the ISA. One may speculate that leading officials were eying the upcoming 2004 general elections.

Minister Matori is the chairman of the new Democracy Glory Party (Pekade), which will contest the elections, while Susilo is among the presidential candidates being groomed by the Golkar Party.

President Megawati Soekarnoputri, whose Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) is the ruling party, has a similar interest, at least to maintain or even exceed its achievement in the 1999 elections.

Similar motives prevail among legislators; while the country will still apply the "improved proportional system" in next year's elections, in which voters will cast their votes for political parties and not for individual candidates, a performance deemed favorable to their parties will guarantee their automatic inclusion into their parties' list of potential legislative candidates.

As for Endriartono, being part of the government team that eventually withdrew the ISA proposal will at least help the ruling government secure the trust of the people. In return, he might be hoping for further possible government posts as he reaches the military's mandatory retirement age of 55.

In the end the government's decision to raise the ISA issue (before eventually dropping it) only showed that the proposal came at the wrong time, as the general elections are approaching. It also came under inappropriate circumstances, with the public still traumatized by the government's past repressive approach.

Unless the antiterrorism law, which is to be reviewed, can provide clear legal limits, requirements and accountability for the government in its campaign against terrorist acts, any kind of legal basis it seeks to support its antiterror campaign will face a wall of opposition from the public, and consequently that much greater force.