Mon, 07 Feb 2000

Key witness in Aceh rights abuse trial missing

JAKARTA (JP): A key witness in the prosecution of alleged human rights abuses in Aceh has gone missing, bogging down a planned trial due for later this month.

Minister of Human Rights Affairs Hasballah M. Saad did not elaborate on the identity of the witness, saying only the person was a "military officer" of the Medan-based Bukit Barisan Military Command which oversees security in Aceh.

He did not say when or where the witness was last seen.

Speaking during a visit to Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi, Hasballah said a trial was originally due to begin during the last week of February, "but it has been delayed due to the disappearance of the key witness".

He acknowledged that the disappearance would hamper the 18 military personnel and two civilians who were allegedly involved in the murders of 65 people in West Aceh in July.

During the incident, troops allegedly shot dead on July 23 Islamic boarding school teacher Tengku Bantaqiah, his wife, his students and dozens of farmers in an antirebel raid in the remote Beutong area, some 100 kilometers south of Lhokseumawe.

Local military officers maintain Bantaqiah and his students, believed to be allies of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), were killed in an exchange of fire.

Witnesses and a government-sanctioned inquiry said, however, that they were executed by troops.

The suspects in the trial were scheduled to be tried before a joint military-civilian panel of six judges.

The identities of the suspects have been kept secret. Military Police chief Maj. Gen. Djasri Marin said in December that the most senior among the suspects was a lieutenant colonel.

The latest incident may likely further delay the planned trial after it was initially to be held at the end of January on Sabang island, just off the northwestern tip of Sumatra.

Hasballah said the disappearance means that the results of the legal proceedings against the suspects may not be "optimal".

The Beutong shooting is among five human rights cases in Aceh being highlighted in investigations of alleged abuses in the restive province.

News of the witness' disappearance comes on the heels of the discovery of the body of a vocal House of Representatives legislator who was a member of the Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in Aceh.

Nashiruddin Daud, 58, mysteriously disappeared in Medan, North Sumatra, and his body was found several days later at the Pancur Batu tourist resort.

While the police have not reached a conclusion about the death, House Speaker Akbar Tandjung has suggested that the killing was politically motivated.

Members of the United Development Party faction in the House have also threatened to boycott proceedings in the legislature if police fail to thoroughly investigate the death of their colleague.

The resource-rich province has been wracked by clashes between troops and suspected rebels and their supporters amid mounting demands for a referendum on self-rule.

Many observers have said demands for Aceh to secede are fueled by numerous rights abuses in the province by security forces.(byg)