In Indonesian Prisons

Amnesty International estimates that there are at least 55,000 political prisoners in Indonesia and that in fact a more accurate total is probably 100,000. They were arrested after the attempted coup in 1965, when a number of middle-ranking army officers tried to destroy the leadership of the Indonesian army and assassinated six senior army generals. The coup attempt was swiftly crushed by surviving army leaders, who charged that the Indonesian Communist Party had been involved. Widespread arrests followed. More than half a million people were killed, and at least 750,000 imprisoned. Although hundreds of thousands of people have been released since 1965, many of these were subsequently rearrested and fresh arrests continue. Furthermore, the total number of untried political prisoners has not changed significantly in the last four years.

Amnesty International believes that the consistent pattern of political imprisonment in Indonesia presents a grave challenge to the concept of international responsibility for human rights. In no other country of the world are so many political prisoners detained without trial and for so many years as in the Republic of Indonesia. A new Amnesty International Report on Indonesia describes the background of political imprisonment there and makes strong and detailed criticisms of the ways in which the constitutional and legal rights of the untried prisoners have been violated.* The report presents clear evidence that Indonesian political prisoners are held under the arbitrary control of the military authorities. Except for the relatively few prisoners who are put on trial, the local military commanders have the power to arrest suspects, to interrogate them, and to permit the use of extreme and brutal torture. These commanders can hold people in prison, use them as servants or for forced labor, release or rearrest them. The Amnesty report is severely critical of the procedures used in the political trials sponsored by the government. But in fact only 800 cases have been heard before the courts since 1965. In conducting these trials, the report concludes, the government is only trying to foster the illusion that it is acting according to established standards of justice.

The vast scale and complex pattern of political imprisonment in Indonesia has given rise to considerable misunderstanding. To comprehend the situation of the prisoners one must refer back to the situation in the early 1960s when, during the regime of President Sukarno, there was an increasing polarization between the left-wing groups led by the Communist Party (PKI) and right-wing political and military factions. In October 1965 a small group of middle-ranking army officers, led by Lt. Commander Untung, a battalion commander in the President’s Guard, captured and assassinated six senior army generals and one other general of lower rank. The attempted coup was quickly suppressed by the army, and President Sukarno’s government was eventually replaced by a military administration under General Suharto, now president. But following the coup a vast purge took place in which more than half a million people were killed by military units and civilian vigilante groups. This…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.