U.S. journalist, Billy Nessen, is currently being held and interrogated by the police in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, currently part of Indonesia. He has been detained by the Indonesian Police since Tuesday, June 24th. Officially, he is being held for possible charges of visa violations which carry a maximum five year penalty. As of July 14th, 2003, he has completed 20 days in custody while the national police and prosecutor are drawing up criminal charges against him. Billy Nessen is likely to be tried within the next week to 10 days and sentenced before the end of July.
Billy Nessen is a free lance journalist whose articles and photographs have been published by many papers including the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle and papers in Australia and other countries. For many years, he has closely followed various movements working for human rights and/or for independence in Aceh. He returned to Aceh shortly before May 19th, the day President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law in Aceh province and activated 50,000 Indonesian troops to crush the independence movement there. As a journalist, Billy was traveling with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which is leading the struggle for the Acehnese independence. .
The Indonesian military demanded Billy Nessen surrender by June 14th, 2003. Billy requested that he be allowed to leave Indonesia without being questioned. His request was strongly supported by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international group of journalists who support the rights of journalists to report what they see without threats or repression. During the period immediately before and after June 14th, he hid in the Acehnese jungle, which was under fierce attack by the Indonesian military.
Based on his understanding of discussions between the Indonesian government, members of the U.S. government including the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, a leading member of the Committee to Protect Journalists and a few human rights activists, Billy Nessen believed he could turn himself in to the Indonesian military in Aceh, and then be permitted to leave Indonesia without having to give any information about his activities or about the GAM and its military wing (AGAM).
On June 24th, Billy Nessen surrendered to the Indonesian military in Aceh. They transported him to Banda Aceh. Although being treated much better than Acehnese prisoners, most of whom are systematically beaten, Billy was not treated well his first few days in custody. Since then his treatment has significantly improved. While he was questioned, a member of the U.S. embassy was present and supportive of Nessenâ€™s rights.
Police investigators claim to have completed their investigation on July 7th and forwarded Billyâ€™s dossier to the prosecutorâ€™s office in Banda Aceh. According to the Jakarta Post, the national police chief of Indonesia, General Daâ€™i Bachtiar said that Billy would be charged with visa violations for being in Aceh â€œwithout securing permission from the martial law administration in Acehâ€. This carries a maximum sentence of five years and a maximum fine of almost $3000. Daâ€™i also said the police would continue to investigate Nessenâ€™s connection to the Free Aceh Movement, which is consistent with statements by leaders in the Indonesian military threatening to try Nessen for espionage or similar charges.
In the last year, although before martial law was declared in Aceh, two women, Lee Sadler from the United States, and Lesley McCulloch from Great Britain, served sentences of four and five months, respectively for minor visa violations because of their sympathy for the independence movement in Aceh.
What Can be Done?
It is all of our responsibility to demand that Billy Nessen be released from detention in Aceh and be allowed to immediately leave Indonesia. We should also request that he not have to serve any prison time. To help him, we need to put pressure on the Indonesian and U.S. governments: the Indonesian government because they are unjustly holding Billy Nessen; and the U.S. government because it is a major supporter of Indonesia and Indonesia does not want to alienate the U.S. and lose its military aid. Therefore calls for Billyâ€™s release by the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia and the U.S. government are likely to get results.
Key phone numbers, emails and faxes!
1. Indonesian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Soemadi DM Brotodiningrat tel: 202 775-5200 fax: 202 775-5365 address: 2020 Massachusetts Ave. Washington, D.C. 20036
2. U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Ralph Boyce tel: (011) 62-21 3435 9000 fax: (011) 62-21 3435-9922 email: email@example.com
3. Indonesia desk at U.S. State Department, Michael Heath tel: 202 647-2769 fax: 202 647-7350
4. State Department email of Colin Powell, firstname.lastname@example.org tel: 202 647-4000
5. U.S. Senator Richard Lugar Head of the Foreign Relations Committee tel: 202 224-4814 email: email@example.com