Fear over dozens of 'missing' protesters

Indonesia: The weekend riots have lit a fuse under a regime which holds together one of the world's most populous countries
Three days after the army broke up riots and pro-democracy demonstrations in Jakarta, at least 78 people are missing in what human rights workers fear may be a new round of politically-inspired "disappearances" by the Indonesian government.

As many as 10,000 people took to the streets on Saturday after police raided the offices of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) where pro- democracy demonstrators had been conducting a sit-in. After throwing stones at police who who had sealed off the streets around the PDI, angry crowds rioted in a nearby business district, setting fire to cars, buses and buildings, including banks, car showrooms and a government ministry. Hundreds of people were arrested, many of them injured by police batons, but discrepancies between govern- ment figures and those gathered by human rights groups are raising fears that the government may be resorting to illegal means to dispose of its political opponents.

According to figures supplied by the police and army to the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (ILAF), 178 people have been charged with crimes committed during the riots, and 28 more remain in custody without charge, while 158 people are known to be receiving hospital treatment for injuries sustained during the disturbances.

A military spokesman yesterday claimed that only two people had died, but at 9pm on Sunday three ambulance hearses were seen leaving a Jakarta hospital escorted by police and army vehicles. The PDI claims that as many as 54 people died, and by yesterday evening 78 political activists remained unaccounted for.

"Today 78 families came to this office asking for help in finding their relatives who hadn't come home," the operations secretary of the ILAF, Mr Munir, told the Independent. "Some of them saw their family members being arrested, and they are very worried about them." The ILAF believes that 500 people disappeared in 1984 after a battle between Muslim demonstrators and soldiers at Tanjung Priok in Jakarta. "We are also very concerned that this is following a similar pattern," said Mr Munir.

The government-sponsored National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) yesterday launched an investigation into the disturbances. "They constituted clear violations of human rights, including the right to freedom from fear and property rights," said the vice-chairman of the NCHR, Marzuki Darusman. "These things happened because violence was used in trying to resolve matters by people with political objectives. It comes down to the skills ... of politicians and ministers in handling these things."

Officials of the NCHR were yesterday turned away from hospitals where some of the wounded are being treated. The Legal Aid Foundation believes that many of those in custody have been denied access to lawyers.

The Indonesian government and armed forces have repeatedly been accused of perpetrating the "disappearances" of political opponents. In East Timor, a former Portuguese colony which was annexed by Indonesia in 1976, as many 200,000 people are believed by human rights organisations to have been killed or to have died of starvation or disease after the invasion. In 1991, 270 people were killed and some 200 disappeared after troops fired on unarmed mourners at a funeral in the former East Timorese capital, Dili.

A statement on the weekend's events was issued by Amnesty International. "As on previous occasions when the security forces have moved to suppress public opposition, the raid was characterised by the use of excessive force," it said. "Amnesty International is gravely concerned for the safety of those individuals currently in detention".

In a statement to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation last week, Amnesty International criticised cited "reports of extra-judicial killings, 'disappear- ances', arbitrary arrests, torture, beatings and unfair political trials throughout the year."

Indonesia: country profile

Geography: Indonesia is the world's largest island group consisting of five large islands (Java, Sumatra, two thirds of Borneo, Sulawesi and Irian Jaya) and 14,000 smaller islands (6,000 inhabited) covering 735,000 square miles. It is the world's fourth largest country with an estimated 192 million people, 87 per cent of whom are Muslim.

History: Indian and Persian traders introduced Islam in the 14th century. Dutch control, as the Dutch East Indies, lasted from the18th century to Japanese conquest in 1942. After a brief war, independence was granted in 1949. Indonesia seized the former Dutch territory of East Timor in 1975 but this has never been recognised internationally.

Politics: From 1949 to 1967, Indonesia was dominated by the President Sukarno, who adopted a broadly anti-Western and pro-Maoist foreign policy. He was replaced by former General Suharto in 1968, who switched to a pro-western approach but imposed de facto one party rule. Riots last weekend were sparked, in part, by the government's ousting of Megawati Sukarnoputri - daughter of Sukarno - from the leadership of the main opposition party, the Indonesian Democratic party (PDI).

Economy: Growing industrialisation in recent years but oil and gas from Borneo and Sumatra still provide 60 per cent of the national income.The GDP in 1994 was $190bn (pounds 126bn) or $1,000 a head.