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Dissidents chronicle Indonesian rights abuses

Ottawa Citizen - November 13, 1997

Bruce Cheadle, Ottawa – Isabel Galhos, one of three East Timorese expatriates living in Canada, doesn't mince words when she describes the 22-year regime of Indonesian President Suharta.

"We are the generation that has lived through genocide," Galhos, 25, told a solemn gathering Wednesday that was equal parts media, East Timorese or Indonesian dissidents and sympathetic observers.

"I'm talking about murder, I'm talking about rape, I'm talking about mothers still looking for their children."

Thus began three hours of graphic, often heart-breaking and sometimes harrowing testimonials to the ongoing repression and brutality of the Suharto regime.

The purpose of the exercise, eight days before the beginning of the Asian Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Vancouver, was to dissuade the federal government from allowing Suharto into Canada to attend.

"Either bar him or put him behind bars," said dissident Indonesian professor George Aditjondro.

Neither will happen.

Canada's relations with Indonesia, and Suharto, have warmed considerably this year. In July, the two governments signed a joint declaration designed to "broaden relations and enhance mutual confidence."

Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy speaks of "principled pragmatism" in defending his policy to engage repressive governments in China, Cuba and Indonesia through trade arrangements.

Against Wednesday's tales and photos of torture, imprisonment and teenage sterilization, the principles were hard to find.

Joao Dias, a lab technician, described working at a military hospital in Dili, East Timor, when Indonesian soldiers opened fire on demonstrators, Nov. 12, 1991.

Some 18 truckloads of dead or wounded were dropped at the hospital.

"The survivors were calling out for their mothers, calling out for help," said Dias, choking back sobs.

"The military response was to stab them with bayonets, to beat their heads with rocks. I witnessed this killing, but I could not do anything."

Aviano Faria told a harrowing tale of being dumped for dead in the military morgue, where he watched soldiers dispatching other wounded survivors of the Dili massacre.

Faria escaped by convincing soldiers he was an Indonesian spy beaten by mistake.

Galhos described soldiers entering her classroom when she was 13 and forcibly injecting all female students. She later learned it was Depo Provera, a birth control drug.

And Roberto Jeronimo, a nurse, recounted his torture with electric shocks to the genitals and having his fingernails pulled out by soldiers in 1983, a year after he was appointed by Indonesia to a local government position.

Longtime social activist and former New Democrat MP Marion Dewar compared appeasing Suharto to Canada's policy of turning away Jews after the Second World War. History will judge us harshly, she said.

"Do we now want to be part of a generation of Canadians that is welcoming Suharto, a murderer, a torturer, a sterilizer of young women?" said Dewar.

An illuminating episode took place at the end of Wednesday's mock trial when several speakers angrily approached an Indonesian women who had been filming the proceedings.

She claimed to be "a housewife married to a Canadian" freelancing for the Indonesian news magazine Gatra, which is supportive of Suharta. She had filmed each speaker, briefly.

She cut short the debate to fly to Toronto, in order, she said, to attend the next speech by the Timorese dissidents.

The woman was dismissed as a spy.

"It's part of the government's psychological intimidation," said Aditjondro.

"It's mental terror."