Union leader under arrest

Richard Lloyd Parry speaks to a human rights activist in custody
"This is Muchtar here," said the voice on the end of the phone. "I'm sorry to say that I won't be able to keep our arrangement tomorrow. Not long after you left my house, some men came round and arrested me."

Four hours earlier, I had been sitting in Muchtar Pakpahan's house in a Jakarta suburb. As Indonesia's leading independent trade union leader, Mr Pakpahan has contacts with many of the country's proliferating human rights groups and non-governmental organisations. At 11.30, about an hour after I left, he was arrested.

The warrant issued by the Attorney General's office says he is being questioned about the subversive activities of Budiman Sudjiatmiko, the leader of the People's Democratic Party (PRD), which is accused by the armed forces of plotting the overthrow of the government

A copy of the arrest warrant, obtained by Human Rights Watch, the US pressure group, suggests that Mr Pakpahan is being questioned under a controversial 1963 subversion law. But it was unclear whether he was being charged

Mr Pakpahan's arrest under this law - which is both draconian and vague - would cause deep international concern, especially in the US. He is well known in Washington, having recently called on senior State Department officials and members of Congress. The Clinton administration said yesterday, off the record, that it was disturbed by his arrest and was seeking information from the Indonesian authorities.

Mr Pakpahan has faced similar charges: last October, the army's chief of general staff named him, along with two other Indonesian intellectuals, as a communist. "I'm a nationalist and I believe in Pancasila [the Indonesian `national philosophy'] and the 1945 Constitution," he said on Tuesday. "I am not a communist. I love my country, but I believe in change."

He has also been incarcerated before. Last year he was released after nine months in prison for allegedly inciting a riot in Medan, Sumatra, in 1994. He has always denied the charge and was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court.

In the current atmosphere in Jakarta, when mere disagreement with the ruling regime is being painted as subversion, and following riots and political unrest last weekend, Mr Pakpahan is an obvious target.