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Indonesia: Aceh Rights Court Must Address Abuse

Indonesia: Aceh Rights Court Must Address Past Abuse

(New York) – The new Human Rights Court for Aceh must try human rights abuses committed during three decades of conflict, not just abuses since the August 2005 peace agreement, Human Rights Watch said today.

Next week the Indonesian parliament will debate the scope of the court’s jurisdiction when it considers legislation implementing the peace agreement between Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM).

“Both sides in the war in Aceh committed grave and systematic crimes,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “What’s the point of a human rights court unless it can offer justice to victims on all sides?”

To implement the peace deal, Indonesia’s House of Representatives is now debating the Aceh governance bill. Parliamentarians from Indonesia’s two largest parties, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar, have sought to limit the jurisdiction of the court to try only those human rights violations committed since the August 2005 signing of the Helsinki agreement. That agreement allows for the trial of past abuses.

Human Rights Watch supported recent calls from a coalition of Indonesian human rights organizations for the court to be granted jurisdiction to prosecute all serious abuses and violations of international humanitarian law committed by either side during Aceh’s 30 years of armed conflict. The coalition, known as the Aceh Working Group, recently stated that parliament’s apparent reluctance to take up past abuses showed that it is attempting to bury abuses committed during the conflict.
Human Rights Watch and others have extensively documented atrocities perpetrated by both the Indonesian military (TNI) and GAM in Aceh. Serious human rights abuses and war crimes committed in the province during the conflict affected almost the entire population at one time or another and included extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, “disappearances,” extortion and forced displacement of civilians.
Most recently, Human Rights Watch documented widespread abuses during TNI military operations from May 2003 to the signing of the peace deal in August 2005. These included routine torture and other mistreatment, including the use of electric shock, burning with cigarettes, beatings and threats against accused GAM members or supporters. Unfair and highly politicized trials were also a characteristic of the government’s prosecution of the war in Aceh.
The conflict caused massive internal displacement. The military frequently displaced thousands of civilians during operations, a violation of international humanitarian law when it is not for the security of the civilians involved or for imperative military reasons. Civilians forced into flight often had difficulty obtaining access to humanitarian assistance, in part because of excessive government restrictions on freedom of movement.
“So far the military leaders who committed crimes in Aceh have been rewarded, not punished,” said Adams. “It is time to end this – individuals on both sides who committed serious abuses must be held accountable.”

Opponents of giving the court broad temporal jurisdiction argue that past violations should be dealt with by the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation, because trials would jeopardize the fragile peace in Aceh. But Human Rights Watch stated that the violations in Aceh were too serious to be addressed only by the truth commission, which cannot impose criminal penalties. States have an obligation under international law to prosecute serious abuses of human rights and war crimes.

Human Rights Watch said that accountability for human rights atrocities demonstrates respect for the dignity of victims, punishes criminals who commit atrocities, and may save lives by deterring at least some future perpetrators. Ongoing impunity for human rights violations in Aceh has created an environment of mistrust between the people of Aceh and the Indonesian government.

Indonesia recently pledged during its successful campaign for membership in the new United Nations Human Rights Council to strengthen human rights and the rule of law at home. A decision by the parliament to foreclose trials for the serious abuses in Aceh would undermine that pledge.

“Even if the political situation is not conducive for trials to go ahead immediately, the authorities should not close the door on justice forever,” Adams said. “Accountability will help all parties come to grips with the past and move forward.”

Human Rights Watch urged the “Quartet” of the U.S., the EU, Japan and the World Bank, as well as other key international actors, to publicly and privately endorse a human rights court in Aceh with no temporal restrictions.

“The international community has pursued justice for past abuses in East Timor, as well as in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia,” said Adams. “Why should Aceh be treated any differently?”

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