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In the police stations of Aceh, in Indonesia’s far northwest corner, fear is the daily diet of the detainees. Not fear of the outcome of a due legal process, but fear of torture by Indonesian police to force a false confession.
For several days now information has been leaking from the Polres (local police) station in the provincial capital Banda Aceh. The sources are varied, but most of the information comes from a police officer who is disgusted by what he says he is forced to participate in, and ashamed that he feels so helpless to intervene on behalf of those held there.
Since the imposition of martial law in Aceh on May 1, the number of detainees without access to lawyers and charged with treason has increased exponentially.
Stories from various sources, all of whom must remain undisclosed, tell of torture, intimidation, sleep deprivation, overcrowding, and lack of food and water. The torture is systematic and takes place at all hours of the day and night.
This past Sunday evening, there were 37 prisoners in two cells in Polres, each cell measuring three by four meters. Two small meals are provided daily but clean water for drinking is in short supply. Lack of food, dehydration, and the heat caused by the overcrowded conditions has resulted in many becoming sick, but a doctor has yet to visit those held in the Polres hell. The shared toilet has been blocked for several days, many have open wounds as a result of torture by the police, the risk of infection in such unsanitary conditions is very high.
In the past few days, Amiruddin, 16, has been beaten so badly around the head that he now has sight in only one eye. There are several detainees in custody under the age of 18, all of whom have been beaten. These detainees are, according to international standards, still classified as children.
There are several elderly prisoners, and their senior years have not spared them from torture. On Monday, Tengku Wahab arrived in one of the cells, his rib already broken from a beating he received while in detention at the Brimob station. Brimob is Indonesia’s elite mobile brigade whose reputation for murder and violence is similar to that of the dreaded Indonesian military. Tengku Wahab is 63 years old and, as with most of the detainees, he has been charged with treason.
The Indonesian government has announced that those suspected of supporting the separatist movement (GAM) in the province will be charged with treason. On Monday, there were 16 other inmates in Tengku Wahab’s cell, 15 of whom had been charged with the same offense. The fate of most of the 20 prisoners in the cell next to Wahab’s is the same. There are two, however, who have been detained at Polres for five months, and to date no formal charge has been made against them. One of the inmates is mentally ill; his charge is also treason.
At 9:30pm on Sunday a new prisoner arrived. The police were angry, they were shouting: “You are a member of GAM, do you think we are stupid? Say you are, say it!” As they shouted, they slammed his head into the bars of the cell – again and again. By telephone at 11:30pm, and obviously in some distress, the police officer who had opened the door to the Polres torture rooms said: “Please call the International Red Cross, these people need help. God forgive me for what I am part of, God forgive us all.”
Information comes not only from this police officer, but from several sources, including those who have been released: “Yes, I was beaten, but I am OK. I don’t know why I was released, I guess I am just lucky. Please help my brothers who are still in Polres.” When asked to identify the instruments of torture, recently released Saifuddin (not his real name) said, “They use anything they can to torture the prisoners. They beat people with guns, rattan poles, wood, and even heavy books. They kick with their boots, in the ribs and on the head, and they have burned so many with cigarettes and with lighters. Sometimes they forced me to hold a ball pen between my fingers and then squeezed my fingers together.”
The international community is all but silent on the issue of Aceh, but has given much more time to the detention of Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, it is interesting to note that at a recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting, Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Hassan Wirayuda was one of the most vocal critics of the Myanmar government. Hassan said of the detention of Suu Kyi: “Myanmar is a setback for the country itself and also a setback for the region.” He was objecting to her detention and the conditions under which she is being held.
But his words ring hollow when in May, back home in Indonesia, the government of which Hassan is part launched against the Acehnese the biggest military operation since the 1975 invasion of East Timor. So many in Hassan’s own country are being detained in conditions that violate all norms and conventions relating to the treatment of prisoners, and also the rights of civilians in a war situation.
It is one thing to fight on the battlefield; it is quite another for members of the national police force to torture, maim and kill those detained under dubious laws. The Indonesian government has interpreted the relative silence of the international community on the issue of Aceh as support for its actions in that remote province.
Why is the Indonesian police force torturing and maiming children and the elderly in Aceh? Why, on Saturday, was the body of one prisoner who succumbed to the ferocity of the torture taken from the Polres at night? Where is the body now?
Hassan said the Myanmar government cannot ignore the calls of the international community to release Suu Kyi. If this is so, then the solution to the problems in Aceh described above is quite simple: the international community need only request that the Indonesian government prevent its police force from torturing civilians, including children and the elderly. Could it really be this simple?
LESLEY McCULLOCH is a research fellow at the Monash Asia Institute, Melbourne, Australia. This article originally appeared in Asia Times.