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Striving to protect the witness amid calls for trials

Jakarta Post - June 26, 2000

Ati Nurbaiti, Jakarta – There is a lot of clamor nowadays to bring those guilty of abusing power and violating human rights to trial – those involved in abduction, arbitrary detention, corruption, torture, rape and killings.

And the list keeps growing. From the 1993 murder of labor activist Marsinah, the Banyuwangi "ninja" killings, the 1996 attack on the Indonesian Democratic Party headquarters in Jakarta, the Bank Bali scandal, "provocateurs" of clashes in various regions, and so on.

But who would come forth as a witness in such cases, when one's child is followed home from school, when a caller threatens your life, or if one must recall the details of a rape over and over again? Reports of the harassment of potential witnesses has led to demands for witness protection.

Legal expert Harkristuti Harkrisnowo, who chairs the team working on a witness protection bill, claims the draft has been completed. The bill especially applies to the protection of witnesses and victims in cases regarding corruption, rights violations, drug abuse and violations by ruling parties.

Witnesses, Harkristuti said during a public debate on witness protection last month, would be ensured of relocation rights, rights to a new identity, and safety for themselves and their families.

The talks were held by the National Commission on Violence against Women, which invited among others experts experienced in international tribunals. Special attention was given to women victims who had told their stories in an earlier workshop closed to the press.

The Commission's Secretary General, Kamala Chandrakirana, said the legal approach only has a chance to work if sensitivity is ensured in the victim's immediate community and in all the different phases she has to pass through on the way to justice, such as dealings with medical and police personnel.

While the grief and anger over a rape may be shared in the family and in the community, one of the experts, Francoise Ngendehayo, said "it is still a long way from that individual actually coming forth as witness." She is a gender consultant for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which has heard the accounts of a few hundred women survivors of the 1994 genocide.

Even a victim's husband might not encourage the woman to speak up about sexual violence, said Ngendehayo, referring to the stigma involved in such a crime.

Ngendehayo told The Jakarta Post, "what struck me is the similarity between the experiences and accounts from Indonesia and Rwanda." She had listened to stories from survivors and victims of clashes in Aceh, East Timor and Irian Jaya. "Although conflicts in Indonesia have not reached the extent of those in Rwanda, they are just the same," she said, referring to the reluctance of women in speaking up about their cases.

A 1996 report on Rwanda by the Human Rights Watch made the statement, based on survivors' testimonies, that thousands of women were victims of such crimes as individual rape, gang rape and rape with sharpened sticks or gun barrels. The exact number of women raped, it said "will never be known." Numerous cases of sexual assault have been reported from conflict areas here but the rare investigations into such cases reflect the obstacles specific to these "gender-biased crimes." Only one case of rape was on the investigation list of a government sponsored team on Aceh.

An insight into the obstacles is provided in a Human Rights Watch report entitled Shattered Lives: "Rwandan women who have been raped or who have suffered sexual abuse generally do not dare reveal their experiences publicly, fearing that they will be rejected by their family and by the wider community and that they will never be able to reintegrate or marry." A lot of victims also fear revenge from attackers.

In Indonesia, the official team investigating the May 1998 riots verified 52 victims of rape, another 14 victims of rape accompanied by violence, 10 victims of sexual attack and four cases of sexual harassment.

From the aftermath of the riots up to the announcement of the team's result in November 1998, the silence of the victims has been reinforced by the outrage following activists' claims that the number of victims was much higher, leading to accusations of "lies that Muslims raped Chinese." Debates over the number of rapes led to reports that one woman among the claimed number of victims was not raped – "but only stripped in public." A physician who had examined some of the victims dropped plans to testify, saying his family was being threatened. Activists called for the need to protect witnesses while their own families were also targeted for harassment. The police said they could not be everywhere to protect witnesses all the time, and many of these witnesses reportedly fled the country to seek safety.

Outcries against the harassment of potential witnesses was subdued compared to the allegations of a conspiracy to discredit Muslims. Until today we are still in the dark over the real identity of the criminals. Six years have passed since the civil strife in Rwanda which killed some 800,000 people, but the chilling similarity to much of the violence in Indonesia is yet to be fully understood.

Similarities are found not only in civilians hunting and killing one another just because they belong to "the other" side, but also in the pattern of victimization of women and the long term effects this has had.

The Human Rights Watch said "rape ... is also used as a weapon to terrorize and degrade a particular community and to achieve a specific political end." Time is short given the continuing violence. So parties seeking justice for victims are pressed to understand the above issues, while learning from whatever experience is available in the obtaining and protection of witnesses.

Ngendehayo, who is from Burundi, described the complexities involved in coaxing a witness to testify. One question that needs to be asked, she said, is "does the witness have a house?" If witnesses are to be protected, "how can they be safe on the streets?" she said, referring to refugees fleeing attackers.

Ngendehayo said that involving family and community and local nongovernment groups is vital in the process to bring forth a witness. The potential witness must be accompanied by a family member and another party from the community who understands the local culture and language, she said.

Also, "I told the women that if they did not come forth, their daughters could also experience the same crimes," she said. However the witness, she added, must be prepared and made to understand the impact of her coming forth, including the way the family would be affected.

"The law must also be demystified," she said, to be made comprehensible to the community and to potential witnesses. A woman from Ambon told the workshop of the "constant fear of meeting people" and of the depression in daily life, as the two-year clashes continue.

Riyah (not her real name), from an unidentified region in Aceh, said she has no idea where her husband is, or whether he is still alive. One night, she said, 20 men entered the back door of their house, beat up her husband and disappeared with him. She has sought information about him from the local and district military headquarters, as well as the police chief, with no result. Left with six children, she said she could not return to Aceh and was always in fear, particularly at the sight of soldiers. "We have no more money," she added.

These were among stories on "crimes by the state." But executives of the national commission on women stress that what is equally urgent is witness protection for victims of domestic violence.

Ani (not her real name), said for years her husband not only locked her up and beat her, but also did the same to the children. The violence started, she said, when she discovered that her husband was having an affair and would not agree to a request for a divorce. Throughout 1999, the Mitra Perempuan women's crisis center has revealed, 60 percent of the 113 cases of abuse against women in Jakarta took place inside the home.

Feminists point to the law as one source of continuing neglect in the ongoing issue of domestic violence. The marriage law, for instance, states that the man is the head of the family. This, says sociologist Julia Suryakusuma, perpetuates the waiving of domestic violence charges on the grounds that such cases are "private" affairs. "This law implies that the woman is the man's property," she said.

Even as barriers against speaking out are being broken down, abused women will surely remain silent as long as there is no protection provided against spouses who have become as powerful and as terrifying as other perpetrators of cruelty.

[The writer is a journalist based in Jakarta.]