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Sentences of up to 13 years handed down

Globe and Mail - April 29, 1997

John Stackhouse, Jakarta – On the second day of a national election campaign, an Indonesian court sentenced five young pro-democracy activists yesterday to jail terms of up to 13 years for speaking out against the government.

The youths, all leftists charged with subversion, received the sentences in the central Jakarta state court while riot police clashed with demonstrators outside. The leader of the People's Democratic Party denounced his case as a show trial and walked out of the courtroom to a holding cell before the sentences of seven to 13 years could be delivered.

"We refuse to remain in this court to hear the verdict," shouted Budiman Sudjatmiko, 27, leader of the small party, which is not recognized by the government. Mr. Sudjatmiko and his co-defendants refused to co-operate with the court, did not enter pleas and recently dismissed their lawyers. "We reject the verdicts, as the court does not have the legitimacy to sentence us," said Mr. Sudjatmiko, who was sentenced to 13 years in jail, less the time he has already spent in custody.

The accused had faced a maximum penalty of death for subversion.

Outside the court, where about 50 sympathizers for the defendants sang "We Shall Overcome," riot police charged the crowd with sticks and tear gas. At least five people were detained by police after the clashes.

"The government through the courts wants to show, if you make a problem, if you challenge the government, you will have big problems," said Bambang Widjojanto, president of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation.

Mr. Widjojanto said the verdict did not match the alleged crime, comparing the 13- year sentence to a two-year sentence for subversion given by the Dutch colonial government to Sukarno, who later became Indonesia's first president. "You have to ask, 'Were conditions better under the Dutch or under the Indonesian government?'" Mr. Widjojanto said.

Government prosecutors said the People's Democratic Party, which says it has about 300 members, instigated riots in Jakarta last July after a police assault on another opposition party's headquarters. The riots swept through central Jakarta and caused millions of dollars in damage.

The government immediately blamed the riots on an underground communist movement and later arrested Mr. Sudjatmiko and 14 other members of his party. Communism is banned in Indonesia.

During the trial, however, the nature of the charges shifted markedly. Prosecutors, who called for 15-year sentences, stopped mentioning the riots and instead accused the youths of stirring hate toward the state, which also is a crime in Indonesia, and of defaming President Suharto.

Mr. Sudjatmiko had called for a boycott of the current election and shown support for the ousted opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno's daughter, who is not allowed to contest the election.

Another three of his party's activists were sentenced last Wednesday to four to six years in jail on subversion charges. A court in the eastern Javanese city of Surabaya held the three, aged 25 to 30, responsible for organizing an industrial strike last July by more than 10,000 workers.

One of the defendants wore a headband carrying the words, "Democracy or Death".

The timing of the trials coincides with Indonesia's carefully co-ordinated parliamentary election, which is held every five years and labelled "a festival of democracy." The government allows only the ruling Golkar party and two opposition parties to participate, and restricts their campaign activities.

Outside the Jakarta court, much of the city centre was decorated with yellow Golkar flags, punctuated only occasionally by the opposition's red and green flags. The city's main boulevard is decorated with bouquets of yellow, red and green lights.

The People's Democratic Party has called for a more open democratic system, and prodded the government to recognize basic worker rights, which many officials fear will drive away investment.