Mon, 21 Aug 2000

RI's human rights image blemished

JAKARTA (JP): Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab admitted that a recently passed constitutional amendment invoking a non- retroactivity principle, is a blemish on Indonesia's image and that he would personally find it difficult to explain to the international community.

Alwi said the amendment certainly does not help Indonesia's effort to improve its stature at a time when the world is awaiting Indonesia's fulfillment of a promise to take action against alleged past human rights crimes in East Timor.

"The article definitely disturbs our efforts. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will find it very difficult to explain the article to the world in the midst of our effort to avoid an international tribunal," Alwi told The Jakarta Post on Saturday.

But State Minister for Human Rights Hasballah M. Saad played down the controversy, saying perpetrators of past atrocities could not escape trial.

Citing the generally accepted principle of law, Hasballah said that for a crucial case a more specific law can set aside the Constitution.

He was referring to the human rights court bill which is being deliberated by the House of Representative (DPR). An article of the bill stipulates the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal which is entitled to try someone based on the retroactive principle.

"What is needed is a political consensus between the government and the House to open such a possibility," he told the Jakarta Post on the sidelines of a two-day workshop on human rights issues organized by his office.

He said the recent joint civilian-military tribunal hearing the case of 24 military soldiers and a civilian charged with the killing of Muslim teacher Tengku Bantaqiah and his followers in Aceh was a precedent for trials of other past crimes against humanity.

Hasballah also said the prospect of bringing perpetrators of past human rights abuses to justice remained great, thanks to the government's plan to establish a truth and reconciliation commission, which also adopts the retroactive principle.

Alwi noted that the United Nations is waiting for Indonesia to come up with concrete actions and a trial against alleged rights abusers during the post ballot mayhem in East Timor in September last year.

Indonesia is under international scrutiny to take action against high ranking officials and military officers who are allegedly responsible for the violence that occurred in the former province.

Jakarta has rejected suggestions of an international tribunal, saying that it will sufficiently deal with the matter itself.

However the People's Consultative Assembly on Friday passed a controversial amendment which effectively ensures that no one can be charged with a crime which did not constitute a violation of law at the time it was committed.

While the concept might be generally understandable, it also means that since Indonesian criminal law has no provision for crimes against humanity and does not recognize the principle of collective responsibility, the most serious charge in court that can be brought against rights abusers is murder.

Rights activists have alleged that the amendment was designed to protect military and government officials from being tried for past rights abuses, not just in East Timor but also other high profile cases such as Tanjung Priok and Aceh.

"I cannot understand the background for the Assembly to draft those words in the first place," Alwi remarked on Saturday.

"But I guess there should be some exceptions to this article so we can still continue with the trial," Alwi added.

He said the government should try to maintain several ongoing cases, especially East Timor to show Indonesia's commitment to uphold justice and human rights.

"Maybe we (the government) should find a way to maintain the ongoing cases which need to be solved, otherwise it will be very difficult to avoid an international tribunal," Alwi added.

International human rights groups over the weekend also blasted the amendment.

Amnesty International said in a statement that attempts to shield perpetrators of past human rights violations "would effectively render all the recent efforts to end impunity in Indonesia meaningless".

Meanwhile Human Rights Watch in a statement received here on Saturday called the actions of the Assembly members "irresponsible".

The New York based organization warned that it could eventually lead to the masterminds of the violence in East Timor being judged less harshly than militia members.

This would mean that if and when the Indonesian Attorney General succeeds in bringing officers who orchestrated the Timor destruction to court, they would be tried for murder while their East Timorese followers could face charges of crimes against humanity, the group said in their statement.

Human Rights Watch further warned that the amendment renders a human rights tribunal bill being debated in the House of Representatives "weaker than it already is".

It called on members of the public to publicize international standards relating to crimes against humanity and for Assembly members to revise the amendment to exempt crimes against humanity and other grave crimes from the non-retroactivity provision.

"Crimes against humanity are so serious that non-retroactivity doesn't apply to them," Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch said.

"This is the prevailing trend in international law and Indonesian judges should go along with it". (bby/dja/mds)