Indonesian rights abuse compensation plan fans fears of impunity

Concerns programme to provide victims of abuses from 1965 mass killings to Aceh conflict with compensation will hinder justice.

Pidie, Aceh, Indonesia – For more than 16 years, Maria Catarina Sumarsih has joined a weekly protest in the Indonesian capital, opposite Jakarta’s Presidential Palace.

The 71-year-old’s son was killed by Indonesian soldiers in 1998 during student protests demanding political reforms.

“My family’s happiness was forcibly taken away. Every day, every moment, Wawan is in my heart,” she said.

“Gradually, I feel that my sorrow over Wawan’s death has been transformed into the struggle to uphold law and human rights, an agenda that Wawan and his friends fought for, which has not yet been realised.”

The demonstrations Sumarsih joins each week are known as the Thursday Action, often bringing together a small but diverse group of people who share the aim of trying to push Indonesia to reckon with past and ongoing human rights violations.

At the most recent rally, there was an additional purpose for Sumarsih – a public rejection of the government’s new non-judicial settlement programme for past serious human rights violations, which includes the killing of her son.

“I reject it because it provides an opportunity for impunity. We have to struggle to uncover truth, seek justice and fight impunity,” she said.

The scheme will provide scholarships, priority health insurance, funds for home renovations, avenues for vocational training, and other methods of compensation, for the victims and families of 12 past human rights abuses.

The violations, already investigated by the National Commission on Human Rights and acknowledged by the government in January, also include the mass killings and persecution of people accused of having links to the Communist Party in the 1960s as well as incidents in the troubled eastern province of Papua.

Several of the violations identified took place in Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra island, where Indonesian soldiers battled independence fighters from the 1980s until the mid-2000s in a conflict in which at least 10,000 people died.

It was here that Indonesian President Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, decided to launch the latest effort to, as he put it, “heal wounds” of the past.

“Today we gather…in this district to heal the nation’s wounds, as a result of past gross human rights violations that have left a heavy burden on victims and their families. These wounds must be healed immediately so we can move forward,” Jokowi told those who had gathered to listen to his speech.

While some were excited at the prospect of seeing the president, the mood was mostly sombre as Jokowi insisted the government’s intentions were sincere.

The compensation was not intended to replace or negate any potential legal action for resolving the cases or securing justice for victims, he stressed.

“I hope the start of this good process can be an opening to efforts to heal wounds. A start to build a just, peaceful and prosperous lift, on a foundation of protection and respect towards human rights and humanity.”

Perpetuating impunity?

The launch took place at the site of a house called Rumah Geudong in Pidie, where Indonesian soldiers were found to have carried out abuses including rape and torture against Acehenese during the conflict.

The building was set on fire in 1998 but in the lead-up to the president’s arrival, most of what was left was torn down in a move that a number of rights groups, including Amnesty International, said could undermine attempts to secure justice for the victims.

Seventy-year-old Rohani Jalil was among those tortured in Rumah Geudong. So were her entire family. She returned to the site just to see the president.

“My husband was held there for one and half months and I was there for one month. Two of my children were victims. One of them died inside the house and the other died on the plantation after also being tortured,” she said.

“I’m no longer afraid because I can only live once and die once.”

Rohani told Al Jazeera she welcomed the settlement programme and hoped it would help her save up money to complete the Hajj pilgrimage, a religious requirement for all Muslims who are physically and financially able.

But Amnesty International’s Indonesia Director Usman Hamid is critical of the programme and believes the government needs to do more to push forward legal efforts to hold perpetrators accountable.

He notes that Indonesia has failed to hold even a single member of its security forces accountable for any of the 12 acts of gross human rights violations included in the programme.

“This non-judicial settlement is not in compliance with the right of victims to know the truth, and the rights of victims to have a full, effective reparation,” Hamid said.

“For those who were harmed by state crimes, from political crimes, they have the right to truth, the guarantee of non-repetition. Clearly, the government remains reluctant to ensure justice and accountability.”

Bejo Untung was just a student when he was accused of being a communist in the 1965 crackdown and jailed for nine years without trial.

He says that while he supports the non-judicial settlement programme as part of realising “the rights of victims to obtain rehabilitation”, his priority remains to push for those responsible for the abuses to be held accountable.

“I had nothing to do with the Communist Party. I was electrocuted in prison and didn’t get enough food. I was only 17. We had to eat geckos to survive,” he said.

“The demands of the victims have always been through judicial means because without punishment, there is no deterrent. I am worried this will perpetuate impunity.”

Bejo Untung said his education was disrupted by his years in prison.

At the age of 75, he says he still has many questions about what happened to him and hopes to see a legal resolution to the abuses carried out in the late 1960s – and other cases too.

“The most important thing is that the state reveals why this happened, who committed the crimes and how many victims are there really?” he said.

“Why has the state allowed this to drag on? Many of my friends have died or are already sickly and old. For those still alive, the state must give them their rights. The right to truth and justice.”

Sumarsih has already taken part in more than 700 protests over the death of her son.

She says she sees no reason to stop until those who killed him are brought to justice, and the reforms that he and his friends were calling for are realised.

“My love for Wawan inspires me,” she said. “Every day, every moment, Wawan is in my heart.”