Angry demands for union leader's release

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The Independent Online
International human rights groups have reacted angrily to the crackdown in Indonesia, calling for the release of political prisoners and an end to arms sales.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions has written to President Suharto condemning the detention of Muchtar Pakpahan, the country's most prominent independent union leader, accused by the government of helping to mastermind the pro-democracy rioting and charged with "subversion".

Mr Pakpahan is being held under the Anti-Subversion Act, which outlaws anyone "disseminating feelings of hostility or arousing dissension, conflict, disorder, disturbances or anxiety" or "disturbing ... industry, production, distribution, commerce or transport". The maximum penalty for those convicted is death by firing squad, and the average sentence is 10 years imprisonment. Under the Act, suspects can be held indefinitely without trial.

According to Amnesty International, "the exceptional powers granted to the military and the prosecution under this law, and the heavy restrictions it imposes on detainees' rights, make serious human rights violations almost inevitable". In 1993, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights urged the repeal of the law, and until this week its use was becoming more rare.

Mr Pakpahan's arrest warrant said that he was being questioned as part of an investigation into Budiman Sudjatmiko, the leader of the People's Democratic Party (PRD) which is accused by the government of fomenting the weekend riots as part of an effort to overthrow the government.

The ICFTU issued a statement condemning the "harassment and intimidation of Pakpahan for carrying out his legitimate trade union activities". Bill Jordan, former president of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union in Britain and now general secretary of the ICFTU, told Mr Suharto that unions around the world were "extremely concerned" about the prisoner's mental and physical safety.

Mr Jordan reminded the Indonesian President that Mr Pakpahan had been subjected over several years to detention, intimidation and harassment for carrying out legitimate trade union activities. The actions of the Indonesian government were in violation of internationally established conventions on human and trade union rights as endorsed by the UN's Internal Labour Organisation to which Indonesia is a signatory, Mr Jordan said.

Confederation representatives were dispatched to Indonesia in 1994 after the union leader was jailed for four years, later extended to five, for alleged subversion. He was released after nine months following international pressure.

A spokesman for the American embassy in Jakarta said: "We continue to be deeply concerned about the apparent violation of basic rights of freedom of peaceable assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of association, respect for rule of law and the democratic process, and call on the Indonesian government to ensure that all those arrested and detained, including Muchtar Pakpahan, are given due process." But US human rights groups are calling on the government to end all weapons sales to the Suharto regime. Washington did go some way down that road last week when it announced a ban on the sale of armoured personnel carriers and crowd control equipment.

"This new ban on armoured vehicles sets an important precedent," said Charles Scheiner of the East Timor Action Network, which monitors human rights in Indonesia. "It represents an acceptance on the part of the State Department of the principle that withholding weapons sales can advance human rights. This principle should be taken to its logical conclusion by banning all weapons exports to Indonesia."

Human rights groups believe that Washington will refrain from taking tough action against Indonesia for fear of jeopardising US business interests there. The New York Times said in an editorial yesterday: "The United States, which has been quicker to see Indonesia as an emerging market than an emerging democracy, must use its considerable influence to discourage reflexive repression and encourage timely change." There was more than $40bn of foreign investment in Indonesia last year.

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