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US Reporter's Trial Opens In Indonesia


US Reporter's Trial Opens In Indonesia

by Marianne Kearney

JAKARTA (San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service/Pacific Media Watch): William Nessen, an American freelance journalist who spent weeks traveling with independence-seeking guerrillas in the restive northwestern province of Aceh, went on trial Wednesday on charges of immigration violations.

Nessen, 46, who has written for The Chronicle and other publications, was brought under heavy guard to court in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. He faces a maximum penalty of six years for violating two immigration laws.

Fearing for his safety after being trapped behind rebel lines with Free Aceh Movement (GAM) fighters, Nessen surrendered to authorities June 24.

In court Wednesday, the prosecution presented Mohammad Nazar, who leads the Aceh Referendum Information Center, a lobbying group demanding an East Timor- style referendum for Aceh, and three detained GAM members in an attempt to establish links between Nessen and the rebels.

An immigration expert told the court that Nessen's journalist's visa was legal, but his activities in Aceh were not. Prosecutors say Nessen acted illegally by covering the guerrillas' side of the war.

The hearing continues July 30.

Defense attorney Amir Syamsuddin said Nessen was being charged with violating his journalist visa for writing for more than one newspaper and failing to obtain a press card and permission to visit Aceh after martial law was declared at the outset of the military campaign in mid-May.

Syamsuddin said his client had a "strong defense," pointing out that Nessen had a valid journalist visa that doesn't limit him to working for one publication and had entered Aceh before the law was changed to require journalists to obtain special permission prior to traveling to the province.

Nessen, who has been detained without bail at police headquarters in Banda Aceh, said he was not mistreated.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Nessen said he was allowed to jog around the police parking lot under guard and make calls to his lawyer and the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. His days are spent in a small room reading books or chatting with his jailers.

The charges against Nessen come at a time when the Indonesian military is making it almost impossible for foreign reporters to cover the 26-year conflict.

Western diplomats in Jakarta say the military is trying to close off the province as they did in East Timor in 1999 to limit coverage of human rights violations.

In a report on the two-month government offensive in Aceh, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels think tank that studies global conflicts, charged Wednesday that "virtually everything (the government) is doing now are tactics used before, to disastrous effect. They do not help end separatism; they generate more support for it."

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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