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Release Sri Bintang Pamungkas

Human Rights Watch/Asia - March 10, 1997

Human Rights Watch/Asia today called for the immediate release of Indonesian opposition politician Sri Bintang Pamungkas who was arrested on the night of March 5 in Jakarta on charges of subversion and said his detention was further evidence of President Soeharto's increasingly harsh response to his critics.

"This is a man the President finds intolerable," said Sidney Jones, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Asia. "He's everything that good citizens of New Order Indonesia are not supposed to be: irreverent, defiant, nonconformist, and politically fearless. By challenging curbs on freedom of expression and freedom of association, he's tried to breathe new life into an atrophied political system, and that, to Mr. Soeharto, is subversion."

Sri Bintang Pamungkas, already well-known in Indonesia as an outspoken member of parliament for the small, Muslim-dominated loyal opposition party, the United Development Party (PPP), first came to international attention in 1995. That year saw both his ouster from the parliament and his arrest for a speech he gave in Berlin, Germany.

In February 1995, Sri Bintang was removed from the PPP ostensibly by party officials but in fact, in response to pressure from top government officials, including the Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Soesilo Soedarman, who suggested that Sri Bintang had been publicly questioning of the value of Pancasila as Indonesia's state ideology – political heresy as far as they were concerned.

In April 1995, Sri Bintang was invited to give a lecture at the Technische Universitet Berlin. The lecture coincided with a state visit to Germany by President Soeharto which was marked by rowdy demonstrations, accusing the President of major human rights violations. Sri Bintang was made the scapegoat for the demonstrations, and in an extraordinary demonstration of intolerance of free speech, the Indonesian government charged him with insulting the President for an off-the-cuff response he made to a question after his lecture. He was sentenced to two years and ten months in prison on May 8, 1996, but remained free pending the outcome of his appeal.

On May 29, 1996, Sri Bintang founded a new political party, called the United Indonesian Democratic Party (Partai Uni Demokrasi Indonesia or PUDI). It was immediately denounced by existing political parties as in violation of Law No.3/1985 which restricts political parties in Indonesia to three: Golkar, the ruling party; the PPP; and the Indonesian Democratic Party, PDI. Sri Bintang further enraged the government by saying that one of the goals of PUDI would be to encourage Indonesian citizens to cast a blank ballot (golongan putih) as a protest measure during elections scheduled for May 1997. "Sri Bintang has clearly enjoyed his role as a political gadfly, but he's also played an extremely important role in encouraging open debate on the fundamentals of Indonesia's political system," said Jones. "There is no possible justification for his arrest."