Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Swedish Release of 3 Aceh Rebel Leaders Shakes Jakarta

By Andreas Harsono

JAKARTA, Tuesday, June 22, 2004 (IPS) -- The sudden release by Sweden of three self-exiled Aceh rebel leaders has stunned many Indonesian officials who had worked with Stockholm to try to lay terrorism charges against the men.

Indonesia's efforts to push Sweden to prosecute the three took a dramatic turn over the weekend when a Stockholm court decided to unconditionally release the Acehnese, saying the prosecutors had no strong evidence to take legal action against them.

Zaini Abdullah and Malik Mahmud of the Free Acheh Movement or GAM were held in the custody of Swedish security officials. The third, Hasan di Tiro, was placed under house arrest due to his advanced age and poor health.

All three were arrested by Swedish police on Jun. 15.

Di Tiro, the movement's founder who has been exiled since 1979, holds Swedish citizenship, as does Abdullah. Mahmud is a Singaporean national with a Swedish residence permit.

Jakarta, which has urged Stockholm to take action against the three, says they direct the revolt in the Indonesian province from exile.

The Indonesian military commander of Aceh, Maj-Gen Endang Suwarya, expressed his dismay at the release of the three GAM leaders.

"Obviously, we're very disappointed. But sooner or later, their wicked behaviour will be revealed," Suwarya told the Serambi Indonesia daily.

"We will help the police to find further evidence. Trust me, the Acehnese society understand these people are terrorists," he added.

Lately Indonesian officials, following the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the United States, have used the word terrorism broadly.

Indonesia claims the movement's leaders were behind a September 2000 blast at the Jakarta Stock Exchange that killed 15 people, as well as several other bombings, two assassinations, six arson attacks at schools and 243 kidnappings.

"We are not terrorists," said Bakthiar Abdullah, a spokesman for GAM in Stockholm, who spoke to IPS by phone.

"We're fighting for freedom from the Indonesian colonisers," he said.

Aceh, the strictly Muslim, gas-rich Indonesian province, is no stranger to secessionist movements.

The Acehnese have had a history of fighting for their independence since the first Dutch force of 3,000 men landed on Aceh shores in April 1873, launching the Acheh-Dutch War.

In the 1940s, Aceh was again in the forefront of the independence struggle against the Dutch. The province was promised autonomy when Indonesia declared independence in 1945 but the pledge was never truly fulfilled by Indonesia's leader Sukarno.

In the 1950s, the Acehnese set out to free themselves from Jakarta's rule and create an Islamic state.

By 1979, Hasan di Tiro had organised a nationalist movement, created a shadow government and appointed rebel governors for much of Aceh.

He moved to Sweden, which had offered asylum to a small group of Acehnese refugees, and became a Swedish citizen in 1985.

His decision to accept help from Libya did not win the movement any foreign friends.

But by 1989, the success of the newly Libya-trained rebel army prompted former president Suharto to mount a military campaign that lasted until he was deposed in May 1998. More than 12,000 Acehnese have been killed in the past decade.

In May 2003, the Indonesian government pulled out of internationally brokered peace talks and launched another military offensive aimed at destroying GAM.

At the same time, it pressured Sweden to bring to justice leaders of the group who live there.

Former Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas was appointed to lobby Stockholm to take legal action against the Acehnese.

Alatas managed to persuade Swedish investigators to visit Aceh and Jakarta in March.

Prior to that, the Indonesian government had launched an official complaint against the three to the Swedish government claiming they were using Sweden as a base to conduct "terrorist" activities.

The Swedish investigation team interviewed 23 people, mostly Aceh separatists, to trace links between the exiles and violence in the province.

When the three GAM leaders were arrested, Indonesian police detectives flew to Stockholm to try to interview them before they were produced in court.

But Indonesian authorities remain confident Swedish authorities would rearrest the GAM leaders.

"It must be emphasized that the court decision yesterday was purely over a technical nature and does not at all reflect the material substance of the case, " Indonesian government spokesman Marty Natalegawa told a press conference.

"In other words, these individuals remain as suspects of great violations of
international laws and will continue to be questioned by the relevant
authorities in Sweden," he added.

GAM's spokesman Bachtiar Abdullah, told IPS, that though the Swedish judges
had told the three rebel leaders that they might be questioned again, "nothing
else has happened."

"They are not detained and are free to move about as usual," he said.

"We'll keep on fighting. Our struggle is a long one and we're not surrendering. No surrender," stressed the spokesman.

However Chik Rini, an award-winning journalist in Aceh's capital Banda Aceh, is tired of the GAM-versus-Jakarta conflict and said most Acehnese paid scant attention to the arrest of the three rebel leaders.

"The Acehnese are sandwiched in between. They're tired and don't know what to do," he told IPS. "There's an atmosphere of fear here. People are nervous to talk about politics."

Copyright 2004 IPS-Inter Press Service/Global Information Network
IPS-Inter Press Service

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