Indonesian army chief faces trial over massacre

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The head of the Indonesian army's notorious special forces, Kopassus, is to stand trial charged with crimes against humanity over his role in a massacre of unarmed civilians nearly 20 years ago.

Major-General Sriyanto Muntarsan, 52, was a captain in charge of troops who fired on a crowd of 3,000 Muslim protesters in September 1984. He allegedly ordered them to shoot without firing warning shots. At least 24 people were killed during the anti-government protest at Tanjung Priok, a port district of Jakarta, according to Indonesia's human rights commission. The shooting allegedly continued as protesters fled. The families of victims say nearly 400 people died.

The massacre was one of many bloody episodes during the 32-year reign of Indonesia's dictator, President Suharto, and it was not until his resignation in 1999 that they could be properly investigated. A law passed in 2001 established a human rights tribunal that is revisiting Tanjung Priok.

The tribunal judges ruled yesterday that they had the authority to hear the case against Maj-Gen Sriyanto, dismissing defence claims that they had no right to try him so long after the event.

Witnesses will be called next month, although some have expressed fears about giving evidence. They say they feel intimidated by the hundreds of red-bereted troops who have packed the courtroom for Maj-Gen Sriyanto's appearances. Some say they have received death threats.

The people gathered at Tanjung Priok were demonstrating against the arrest of four Muslim clerics, who had distributed subversive material. Maj-Gen Sriyanto, who is accused of murder and torture, faces a maximum sentence of 25 years. Thirteen other officers have gone before the same tribunal.

Australia broke off joint military exercises with Kopassus during the crisis over East Timor's ballot for independence, but wants to resume them because Kopassus is responsible for counter-terrorism.

Maj-Gen Sriyanto was supposed to lead a group of officers to Australia last month, but Indonesia cancelled the trip after the Australian Defence Force objected to his participation.

The tribunal mirrors a human rights court set up to hear cases of alleged atrocities by the security forces in East Timor. That court has been widely criticised for acquitting most defendants and handing down lenient sentences.