Thu, 25 Mar 1999

General's amnesty

When President B.J. Habibie took office in May, the release of political prisoners became a cornerstone of his administration. Indeed, one of his first actions was to authorize the release of dozens of prisoners of conscience under a presidential amnesty.

This week, Habibie freed 42 more prisoners, bringing the number of political prisoners released to date to 202 out of 240 incarcerated during the regime of former president Soeharto. Minister of Justice Muladi has since disclosed plans to release 10 more prisoners jailed for their role in the 1965 aborted coup, blamed by Soeharto on the now-outlawed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). They are to be released on humanitarian grounds because of their advanced age and deteriorating health.

While all of this may look impressive, it does not answer the question about the fate of the remaining 38 political prisoners in jail. Why should they continue to serve time for holding different views from the old regime, now widely painted as repressive and tyrannical?

Releasing Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, the jailed East Timor rebel leader, for example, could speed up the process of an East Timor solution, now that the government has acknowledged his major influence in the proindependence movement.

A telling point was provided by Budiman Sudjatmiko, the chairman of the People's Democratic Party (PRD), who refused an offer of presidential amnesty this week. He argued that an acceptance would be an admission of guilt. Budiman, who continues to lead the PRD from behind bars in the run-up to the June polls, says he will serve the length of his prison term as a matter of principle, and as an expression of solidarity with fellow prisoners of conscience. He insists that a general amnesty be extended to all political prisoners, without any preconditions.

Indeed, in the absence of any clear criteria about who is entitled to receive a presidential amnesty, it is hard not to question the motive behind the government's decision to release political prisoners in batches. The timing certainly looks suspicious. The release of 40 Aceh prisoners just days before the President is due to visit the troubled province suggests that there are motives other than genuine amnesty behind the decision.

The decision to offer Budiman a presidential amnesty -- which he rejected -- and to release aging PKI prisoners occurred days after visiting Germany's Human Rights Commissioner Gerd Poppe personally asked Habibie. Given that such demands have been made by many local groups, including our own National Commission on Human Rights, since his first day in Merdeka Palace, one cannot help but wonder who are Herr Habibie's real constituencies: Germans or Indonesians?

Habibie has missed out on a golden opportunity to prove once and for all that he is different from his predecessor, by failing to release of all political prisoners during Soeharto's regime. Although the prisoner's convictions followed the due process of the law, their trials were not fair since the courts were not independent but were mere tools of the regime, especially in political trials. By continuing to detain political prisoners, Habibie is endorsing the repressive policies of his predecessor.

A general amnesty for all political prisoners, as demanded by Budiman, would be the most appropriate course of action for Habibie to break from Soeharto's policies. Yet, as Muladi explained, all proposals for presidential amnesty are first discussed with the Armed Forces, which takes into consideration national security issues. Rather than a general amnesty, we seem to have ended up with a general's amnesty.

What security threat can prisoners in their 70s and mostly in poor health, pose to the nation? A 78-year-old former president, who retains political and financial clout, and whom many suspect is behind violent unrest in various parts of the country, is a bigger threat. Given the atrocities he had committed during his 32 year leadership, he is the real enemy of the state. He is certainly the enemy of the people. He, not Xanana, Budiman or other political adversaries, should be in jail.