Thu, 29 May 2003

Rights body to go to Aceh despite govt's reservation

Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak and Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) is determined to send its members to war-torn Aceh early next week to monitor possible rights violations there despite lukewarm consent from the government and a condition that it play "fair".

Commission member M.M. Billah, who heads the ad hoc Monitoring Team for Peace in Aceh, said the team members would go anyway because they had a moral obligation as well as a legal mandate to investigate alleged rights violations.

"We will meet the officials in the province to notify them that we're on an intensive monitoring mission there," he told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday, revealing the mandate given to the team by the commission's plenary session.

Team members will fly to Aceh on Monday. They are Billah, Zoemrotin K.S., Eny Soeprapto and Anshori Thayib.

Representatives from the rights commission for children and womens rights, as well as several staff members will also go to Aceh.

Currently, Komnas HAM has four representative offices and individuals in various regencies in Aceh. The commission plans to establish a few more offices in Bireuen, Lhoksemauwe and West Aceh.

Bireuen and Lhokseumawe are known to be areas where the greatest amount of violence has taken place as they are Free Aceh Movement (GAM) strongholds and thus prime targets for the military and police.

Under Article 89 of the 1999 law on the rights commission, members can conduct field checks, carry out investigations and summon sources or witnesses of alleged rights violations.

Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said on Wednesday that the government would not obstruct Komnas HAM in Aceh, but added that the commission had to be "fair" in their reports.

"We are ensuring their freedom during the assignment. However, we call on the commission to be fair and objective. Please do not overlook the separatists, who also have repeatedly abused human rights," Susilo alleged.

The minister used the occasion to emphasize to them that the commission was established by the government and had the authority to ensure that there were no violations of human rights due to any government policy.

He accused the rebels of torching hundreds of schools and reminded the commission that it was therefore a clear example of a GAM violation of human rights.

The dispatch of the monitoring team follows reports on possible violations against civilians during the military operations to rid the country of all GAM elements, including reports of executions of alleged non-combatants on a shrimp farm in Peusangan district as well as violence committed by the military in Peudada district. Both districts are in Bireuen regency.

An article on the shrimp farm incident has also placed Koran Tempo daily in hot water with the TNI, who now plans to sue the daily over what it calls a false report. The Military also is considering a lawsuit against France-based news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) which first broke the story.

Billah said it was good sign that legal action was the method chosen as a means to settle the matter, but urged the public to give more credence to his team's planned investigation instead of accepting a news story as fact, with regard to the military raid which led to the death of 10 people, including a 13-year-old boy.

He noted that the different accounts of the way the people died was an example of how each side could use an event as part of psychological warfare in armed conflicts.

As part of such a technique, he added, abuses of information were the most effective way to make an opponent look bad or take a wrong step.

He also claimed that it would not be not easy for anyone, including the media, to find a valid Acehnese source to share information without some sort of pressure because "they have been traumatized by the past military operation (from 1989-1998) which has made them reluctant to talk too much about the military or GAM."