Tuesday, May 26, 1998

Habibie's amnesty offer turned down

The Nation

JAKARTA -- Two of Indonesia's most internationally recognised political prisoners rebuffed an offer of amnesty from President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie's government, which Monday also announced plans for massive political reform and early elections.

Imprisoned legislator Sri Bintang Pamungkas and union leader Muchtar Pakpahan said, from inside the Cipinang prison in east Jakarta Monday, that they would take the amnesty offer only if other political prisoners were released as well.

The two made their statements just minutes after the Justice Minister Muladi had announced on television that the government was to release all political prisoners with ''some legal considerations and selection''.

However, their planned release drew a protest, held by more than 1,000 Indonesians, in front of the notorious prison. They obviously were waiting to welcome all political prisoners as they had been promised.

However, they began to boo government officials and prison guards when they learned about the release of just two prisoners.

Around 200 students and relatives unfurled protest banners asking the government to release all the political prisoners, which include East Timor resistance leader Xanana Gusmao. ''Free Xanana Gusmao,'' read one banner.

Muladi, who had attended a Cabinet meeting earlier Monday, had mentioned the names of Pamungkas and Pakpahan, saying that the Cabinet had agreed to release them but not the ones whose cases ''involved the propagation of communism, Marxism or Leninism, as well as those held for crimes and acts against pancasila and the 1945 constitution''.

Pancasila (''the five pillars'') is Indonesia's state ideology, whose components are trust in God, humanity, national unity, democracy and social justice.

It was obviously a reference to communist leaders jailed in the late 1960s as well as younger student activists of the left-leaning People's Democratic Party (PRD) and separatist fighters for East Timor.

Pakpahan, chairman of the unrecognised Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union, had been charged with inciting the 1994 riots in the city of Medan in northern Sumatra, but his case has never been brought to trial.

The union leader, who has had to be treated for respiratory problems since March last year, was also charged with subversive activities in 1996 due to the publication of his book on trade unionism and a speech to a Portuguese university.

Pamungkas, formerly a legislator of the United Development Party, had been charged with defaming former president Suharto and organising a protest against him in Dresden, Germany in 1995.

The unexpected refusals from Pamungkas and Pakpahan prompted Muladi to negotiate with them and their lawyers. It is still not clear if the two prisoners will accept the amnesty.

Muladi said only that Cipinang prison officials had released them from their cells though the two prisoners, who met their wives and relatives, had refused to leave the prison.

An aide to Pakpahan Rekson Silaban said the two had actually agreed to leave the prison if Muladi gave them a time frame for the release of the other prisoners but as he had refused to give them an answer they had remained in the prison.

Muladi reportedly said all the political prisoners, including the East Timor freedom fighters, would be pardoned after the government had set criteria, adding that the amnesty was part of the government's efforts to promote human rights and meet international criteria on political freedom.

According to the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, there are more than 200 political prisoners, ranging from student leaders like Budiman Sujatmiko and Muslim activists to elderly communist cadres, some of whom have been held for more than 25 years.

The 36-member Cabinet unanimously approved plans to breathe life into Indonesia's restrictive political system.

''The principle is elections as soon as possible after we prepare the laws,'' State Secretary and chief government spokesman Akbar Tandjung said after the meeting.

However, legal experts say the changes and preparations for elections will take time and polls are not likely to be held before next year.

With new elections a new session of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), which meets once in five years after parliamentary elections, is possible.

The 1,000-member MPR includes 500 MPs as well as military and civilian officials appointed by the president.

At present only three political parties are allowed to contest polls, and campaigning is restricted to a few weeks before elections.

''The president has discussed making political activity more free ... including allowing anyone in society to form political parties and organisations,'' Tandjung said.

Under the current laws general elections are held every five years, and the next one is not due until 2002. Suharto's Golkar party has won every election with massive margins since the former army general took power in 1965.

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