Prisoners who refuse to come out of jail

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The Independent Online
ONE night in November 1993, a month before she was due to be married, Sri Rahayu dreamed that her fiance's engagement ring disappeared from her finger. They had known one another for six years; in ten days' time they were due to be married. When Sri Rahayu woke the next morning in her village in Central Java, the the ring was still there. But her fiance, Nuku, had gone. Yesterday she stood outside Cipinang prison in Jakarta, with her ring still on her finger, still waiting for him to come back.

A fortnight ago, the only hope was patience. Nuku Sulaiman received a four year sentence - increased to five on appeal - for "insulting" President Suharto. His crime was to have printed a series of stickers reading "Suharto, Puppet Master of Disaster", and he was due to complete his sentence in August. But last night, the government of the new President B J Habibie found themselves in the bizarre position of pleading with their own political prisoners to leave their cells and walk out of prison.

Five days into his term as Indonesia's president, Mr Habibie took his most significant step yet towards promised political "reforms" by pledging to release of the country's prisoners of conscience. By last night, "negotiations" were underway with two of the most prominent - Sri Bintang Pamungkas, another insulter of Suharto, and the dissident trade union leader, Muchtar Pakpahan. Their release has been agreed, but it appeared to be held up on a remarkable technicality - while the government called its change of heart an "amnesty", the two were refusing liberty. "The correct words should be `freed from any conditions at all'," said Sri Bintang earlier. "Freedom is really our right."

As the two waved and smiled from the prison balcony yesterday, hundreds of friends, relatives and supporters of prisoners, including Sri Rahayu, gathered outside, singing, chanting and blocking the road. East Timorese called for the release of their guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao - at present, the Timorese resistance and the communists seem unlikely to win pardons, but that may change in time.

A few weeks ago, in any case, to have unfurled banners reading "Free Xanana" or supporting the outlawed People's Democratic Party would have meant instant arrest by vigilant police. Yesterday, the soldiers looked on without interfering, apparently as jubilant and relieved as everyone else.