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42 political prisoners freed

Associated Press - January 2, 1999

Jakarta – Indonesia freed 42 political prisoners in a New Year's amnesty and plans to revoke a key legal weapon once used to bolster the rule of former President Suharto, local media reported Saturday.

The moves are part of a reform program led by Suharto's successor, President B.J. Habibie, who has been targeted by student protesters demanding swifter democratic change.

Habibie freed dozens of political prisoners and pledged parliamentary elections this year after taking over from Suharto, who stepped down in May following riots and protests against his 32-year rule.

The prisoners released Dec. 31 include 26 separatist activists from the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, where rebels have fought the Indonesian military since it invaded in 1975.

However, East Timor's jailed rebel chief, Xanana Gusmao, was not granted his freedom. He is serving a 20-year sentence in a Jakarta prison and is seen as a major player in UN-sponsored talks between Indonesia and Portugal to solve the long-running conflict.

The government also freed 16 prisoners involved in other separatist movements, including 15 people from the Sumatra island region of Lampung and one from Aceh province. They had been sentenced in 1990 to jail terms ranging from 16 years to life.

Newspapers quoted Justice Minister Muladi as saying the government will revoke Indonesia's anti-subversion law before the elections scheduled for June. Parliament will begin debate on whether to scrap the law this month, he said.

The law, which carried a maximum penalty of death, was a potent legal instrument because it could define virtually any anti-government activity as subversion. Suharto often used it to jail and muzzle opponents.