Fri, 04 Jul 2003

U.S. regrets verdict on Aceh activist

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Local activists and the United States have denounced an Aceh court sentence against an activist campaigning for a referendum in the war-torn province, underlining that the verdict is a threat to democracy and freedom of expression.

The United States "regrets" the five-year prison sentence against Nazar, a State Department spokesman said on Wednesday.

"This is the latest in a series of convictions and prison sentences for peaceful expression of antigovernment views in Indonesia," spokesman Richard Boucher said in a statement as quoted by Agence France-Presse.

"We regret that the Banda Aceh court handed down such a harsh sentence against Mr. Nazar for exercising his right to peaceful political activity, as recognized by the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Indonesia is a signatory," Boucher said.

"We continue to believe that the Aceh conflict is not amenable to solution by use of military force. The only long-term solution to the Aceh conflict will come through political dialog with all segments of Acehnese society based upon Special Autonomy provisions."

Noted lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis and former member of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) Asmara Nababan asserted that voicing a dissenting opinion in a peaceful manner was not a crime.

"Voicing an opinion is a political right that has to be respected and not punished. The verdict is inappropriate," Todung told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.

He stressed that voicing an opinion that was not in line with the government was an exercise in democracy and part of the right to freedom of expression.

"As long as it is conducted peacefully in a democratic country there is nothing wrong with voicing a different opinion from the government," Todung said.

Asmara said that the verdict posed a threat to democracy as it would create a culture of fear among the people.

"The verdict is a threat to democracy and human rights. It is also against the 1945 Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech," Asmara told the Post.

He further said Nazar should not be penalized for exercising his political rights as it was granted by the Constitution and Law No. 39/1999 on human rights.

"Or maybe the judges are afraid to take a decision that may contradict the government's stance on national unity," Asmara remarked.

Muhammad Nazar, chairman of Aceh Referendum Information Center (SIRA), was sentenced to five years behind bars on Tuesday for "displaying hostility" to the government through his campaign for a referendum on self-determination in Aceh.

Presiding judge Sabirin said Nazar had violated Article 154 of the Criminal Code by instigating hatred and hostility toward the legitimate government, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

The court said that the call for independence and the referendum was made during a series of speeches in North Aceh and Aceh Besar regencies in January.

He was arrested on Feb. 12, just two months after the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement was signed in Geneva by the government of Indonesia and GAM representatives.

Nazar, who was sentenced on Nov. 20, 2000, on the same charges, asserted that he and his fellow activists would continue to seek a peaceful solution to the Aceh problem through a referendum.

The military has said that SIRA is linked to the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Besides Nazar, there are a number of activists detained in Aceh, awaiting trial. The authorities claim that these detained activists are also linked to GAM.

The government under President Megawati Soekarnoputri has sent a number of protesters to police's detention and eventually to prison on charges of insulting the President or the Vice President.