Sun, 21 May 2000

Kostrad commander apologizes to Acehnese

JAKARTA (JP): The Army's Strategic Reserves Commander (Kostrad) Lt. Gen. Agus Wirahadikusumah apologized to the Acehnese on Saturday for his troops' involvement in last year's mass killings in the province.

But he insisted that senior officers should be held accountable for the killing of Islamic teacher Tengku Bantaqiah and more than 50 of his students.

"The soldiers just followed orders from their commandants," he said on the sidelines of the 34th anniversary celebration of Kostrad's Airborne 17 in Cijantung, East Jakarta.

Ten Kostrad troops were among 24 soldiers and a civilian sentenced to between eight and a half years and 10 years in prison by a joint military-civilian tribunal on Wednesday after being found guilty of killing the teacher and his students last year. A captain was the highest ranked officer convicted, while the rest were mostly low-ranking soldiers.

Many have criticized the verdict, saying it excluded the real culprits and the trial itself served more as a public relations exercise.

Agus said the hunt for the intelligence assistant to Lilawangsa Military commander, Lt. Col. Soedjono, the key witness and suspect in the case, had yet to bear fruit. Agus added that the search for Soedjono, who went missing in November last year, had been conducted in North Sumatra and West Java.

Some of the defendants testified during the trial that it was Soedjono who ordered the massacre. Although possible, the trial of Soedjono in absentia did not materialize.

Bantaqiah and his students were shot dead in an antirebel operation which followed an intelligence report stating they possessed 100 firearms.

Agus also appealed to the Acehnese, especially relatives of the victims, to pardon the soldiers and seek clemency from President Abdurrahman Wahid for the troops.

"We appeal to the relatives of the victims to request clemency because in any case of this kind no low-ranking soldiers can take the guilt, mainly because they carry out orders," he said.

Kostrad plans to provide financial assistance to the families of the victims, including scholarships for their school-age children, Agus said.

He said if the Acehnese were ready to pardon the soldiers he would also appeal to the President for clemency for them.

"Kostrad will appeal to a higher court and provide maximum legal assistance for the 24 soldiers," he said.

Agus said he was proud of the Kostrad soldiers who demonstrated respect for the supremacy of the law by accepting the verdict.

"I am personally proud of the soldiers because they accepted the verdict without reservation to show their compliance with the law. This attitude is a good example to all citizens," he said.

He also confirmed that two Kostrad soldiers were killed when trying to stop violence that re-erupted in the Maluku capital of Ambon on Wednesday.

He said the renewed violence indicated that the sectarian conflict in Maluku and North Maluku should be settled by the two provinces themselves.

In the Aceh capital of Banda Aceh, the Bantaqiah family said the verdict was unacceptable and demanded that the court be reopened to try senior officers who it is believed gave the orders in the antirebel operation, which ended up with the mass killings.

"It is unfair to see low-ranking officers stand trial and convicted for the murders, while their superiors who gave the order escape prosecution," Andi Suwandi BR, the Bantaqiah family's lawyer, said in a media statement.

The Bantaqiah family ruled out the possibility of testifying, citing a lack of security guarantee.

The Coalition of Acehnese Rights Defenders will also issue a statement rejecting the verdict on Sunday. (50/rms)