Fri, 11 Feb 2000

Case of the lost witness

The human tragedy that has for more than a decade been ravaging Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh, certainly deserves serious consideration. However, recent developments have made it difficult for one to avoid the impression that the inquiry is beginning to take on the quality of a good thriller. Just when the authorities appear finally to be ready to commence legal proceedings against 20 military personnel and civilians allegedly involved in the shooting of dozens of unarmed civilians, in West Aceh in July last year, a key suspect in the killings goes missing. Thus, an element of "mystery" is introduced into the Aceh human rights drama, ushering in new elements of suspicion, suspense and anticipation.

To summarize the case: In one of the most serious and most visible of human rights abuses committed by the military in the restive province in recent months, troops reportedly shot dead a respected Acehnese Muslim religious teacher, Bantaqiah, his wife, his students and dozens of farmers in the remote village of Beutong, about 100 kilometers south of the industrial town of Lhokseumawe.

Military authorities have since asserted that Bantaqiah and his students were killed in an exchange of fire during a military raid against rebel strongholds in the area. However, an independent inquiry sanctioned by the government, quoted witnesses as saying there was no resistance whatsoever from any of the 65 people who were killed in the incident. Strong demands for justice in this case have been voiced, both in Aceh and in Jakarta, before initiating a wider investigation to unearth evidence needed to bring earlier human rights abuses to court.

Initially scheduled to begin later this month, the trial of those accused in the Beutong massacre was to be the first major human rights trial to be opened in Aceh. Clearly, given the known aspects of the tragedy, the available evidence, including witness accounts and its relatively recent date, the trial is certain to draw a great deal of attention, not only from the Acehnese, but through the media, concerned Indonesians throughout the archipelago, and possibly the world, as well.

During the past week, the first reports appeared in the press in Jakarta that Sudjono was missing. On Wednesday, the spokesman for the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), Air Rear Marshal Graito Usodo, told reporters that the Army lieutenant-colonel, who was chief of intelligence at the Lilawangsa Military Command headquarters in Lhokseumawe at the time of the tragedy and who has been named as one the primary suspects in the case, has been missing since he deserted the Army on Jan. 18.

Sudjono's disappearance obviously raises a number of questions. Where is he hiding, or being hidden? Who, if anyone, helped him disappear? Is Sudjono merely trying to save his own skin, or could there be a broader scenario behind his disappearance? Only time can answer these questions. In the meantime, though, Sudjono's disappearance is obviously putting a wrench in the wheel of those who seek justice in Aceh. Under the circumstances, one cannot help noting that apart from Sudjono himself, who else will clearly benefit from his disappearance: those who were allegedly involved in the killings; in other words, the military.

Hence, one must forgive human rights activists such as Munir and others for suggesting that Sudjono may have been abducted, or otherwise sent missing, "to prevent him from uncovering the whole of the military violence in Aceh." Whether or not this is true is something for the authorities to find out. But more than any other institution, it is the military, the TNI, which has the greatest interest in finding the missing officer and presenting him to the judiciary for due trial. Not only does its reputation depend on it, but it has a responsibility to the nation to ensure that justice is done in Aceh. Without this there may be no end to the unrest -- either in Aceh or elsewhere in this archipelago.