Indonesia shows signs of openness Government moves toward freeing some political prisoners

About 200 now being held

But release of a few could be effort to help image, some caution

May 25, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- In a potential sign of greater openness after the fall of President Suharto, Indonesia moved yesterday toward the release of some political prisoners.

Officials threw open the iron door of East Jakarta's Cipinang Prison and allowed reporters to freely interview inmates as family members and friends devoured cake and celebrated what they hoped might be a speedy release.

"This is extraordinary," said Colonel Latief, who has spent the past 32 years behind bars for his role in the slayings of six army generals in 1965 that led to Indonesia's "Year of Living Dangerously" and the rise of Suharto. "I've never spoken to a foreign reporter before."

Latief reiterated his claim that he told Suharto, then a little-known general, about the plans for the killings.

Human rights advocates say Indonesia's government holds about 200 political prisoners and last released one about two years ago.

Minister of Justice Muladi said yesterday that he would meet today with President B. J. Habibie to discuss the release of 10 to 15 political prisoners, according to this morning's Jakarta Post.

The wife of Sri Bintang, one of the nation's most prominent political prisoners, said yesterday that she had been told her husband and labor leader Muchtar Pakpahan would be set free within the next few days.

Habibie has said that revising the nation's subversion law would be part of his reform program, although he has yet to address the issue of releasing prisoners.

"I think [Suharto's resignation] is going to bring big changes," said Pakpahan, 45, who is serving a four-year sentence on charges he incited a labor riot in the north Sumatran city of Medan.

Amid the excitement and anticipation, however, some prisoners cautioned that the government might release only a few prisoners as a symbolic gesture aimed at softening its stern image and keeping international aid flowing to repair its devastated economy.

Human rights advocates also noted that Suharto released thousands of Communist prisoners in the late 1970s without fundamentally changing the authoritarian nature of the country.

'This is just political theater'

"For me, it will only have meaning if everyone is free," said Nuku Sulaiman, 34, who has spent nearly five years in prison for "insulting the president" after handing out leaflets describing Suharto as the "puppet master of all national disasters."

"This is just political theater that would give the impression that things have changed," he said.

Unable to repair an economy damaged by corruption, inefficiency and poor lending practices, Suharto bowed to enormous public pressure Thursday and stepped down as president of the world's fourth most-populous nation. With his resignation, Suharto added his name to the ranks of strongmen who have lost their jobs in the past decade.

During his 32 years in power, Suharto exercised a somewhat selective form of authoritarianism. He sometimes tolerated a surprisingly free press, but he had no patience for personal attacks or organized opposition.

Like Sulaiman, Bintang was imprisoned for "insulting the president." He received a 34-month sentence after calling Suharto a dictator in his response to a question about economics in a lecture at the University of Berlin.

A living history museum

Yesterday, walking into the prison courtyard was liking stepping into a living history museum of Indonesian political opposition -- a group that included a jungle guerrilla leader, a middle-aged man who tried to form his own political party and student dissidents in their 20s.

By one of the gates stood Latief, who played a key role in the slayings of the six generals, which the Indonesian government contends was an attempted Communist coup. Afterward, the military and citizens went on a killing spree that left hundreds of thousands dead.

It remained unclear whether Latief will be released soon. Even if he were, he said he probably wouldn't recognize the world now.

"If they free me, I'll be lost," said the skinny 72-year-old.

Not far away, surrounded by photo and video cameras, stood Xanana Gusmao, a 51-year-old former guerrilla leader who spent two decades fighting for the independence of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that Indonesia annexed in 1976 after a bloody invasion.

Xanana, who is serving a 20-year sentence for killing Indonesian soldiers, said he hoped a new, more open government might be more willing to resolve the dispute over East Timor's sovereignty.

"In this struggle of the Indonesian people for freedom, they may also see the need to give the Timorese people freedom," Xanana said as a well-wisher held an umbrella over his head to shield him from the tropical sun.

But Xanana might not be eligible for amnesty; Muladi, the justice minister, said those jailed for armed rebellion would probably not be considered.

Won't accept amnesty

Bintang said if the government offers him amnesty, he won't accept because it would imply that he had done something wrong. Instead, he wants to be released unconditionally.

"I should be out of here by now," said Bintang, who has 14 months of his sentence left to serve.

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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