Tue, 04 Feb 2003

Christian leader brought to trial over Poso violence

La Remy, The Jakarta Post, Palu, Central Sulawesi

The Palu District Court opened on Monday the trial of the Reverend Reinaldy Damanik, accused of arms possession in the troubled town of Poso, Central Sulawesi.

During the one-hour session, which began at 10 a.m., prosecutors charged the defendant with "controlling, carrying and transporting" firearms and ammunition in Poso.

Chief prosecutor I Putu Gde Djeladha said the defendant was guilty of violating Emergency Law No. 12/1951, which carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

The Christian leader is charged with possessing dozens of rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, which authorities believe were intended for use by Christians in the prolonged sectarian conflict in Poso.

Djeladha said that last Aug. 17, police found several homemade rifles and bullets in Damanik's Kijang, which was carrying Damanik and several others from the village of Paleru in Morowali regency, adjacent to Poso.

The village had just been the target of attack by a group of Muslims.

The prosecutor said Damanik's driver, Sartob -- who is a key witness in the case -- had advised his employer to unload the weapons from the car, but Damanik ignored the advice.

Djeladha said police also found homemade guns in the two cars that were escorting Damanik's Kijang from Paleru, where the Christian leader had led an evacuation of Christian victims of the earlier attack.

"As the coordinator of the Crisis Center and the leader of the evacuation team, Damanik should be held responsible for all activities he and his team carried out at that time," Djeladha said.

The defendant has repeatedly disavowed ownership of the weapons, accusing the police of planting the weapons in his car.

On Monday, Damanik denied all of the charges against him when the panel of judges asked him how he pled.

The defendant's lawyer, Jhonson Panjaitan, told journalists after the session that the case against his client was politically motivated and vowed to disprove all the charges at the next hearing.

Jhonson also questioned why the police did not immediately arrest Damanik when they allegedly found the rifles and ammunition.

Police have said that attempts to arrest Damanik in Poso were foiled by his followers, forcing the authorities to summon Damanik to Jakarta for questioning.

The Christian leader complied with the summons on Sept. 11, appearing for questioning at the National Police Headquarters in Jakarta, where he was eventually arrested.

Damanik is currently being held at the Palu Prosecutor's Office, which twice returned the defendant's dossier to local police investigators for revisions.

The hearing on Monday, which was presided over by judge Nyoman Sumanada, who is accompanied on the bench by judges Tahsin and Ferdinandus, was guarded by more than 50 police officers despite a low turnout in the court.

The trial was adjourned until Feb. 10, at which time the defense will be given the opportunity to lay out their case.

Damanik was one of the Christian leaders who signed the Malino peace agreement in December 2001 to end the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Poso, which claimed the lives of some 2,000 people over three years of violence.

The landmark accord has significantly reduced violence in the area, but sporadic outbreaks continue to occur.