As the electric shock ripped through his chest, student activist Nezar Patria felt he was at the point of death. His Indonesian military captors had kicked and punched him so hard that the chair upon which he sat had broken. Still he refused to talk. At this point, his jailers tied him to a bed with steel wire and further increased the punishment.
“At first they shocked my legs and I could still resist, but when they started on my chest, the pain was excruciating. It felt like my joints were exploding,” he told Al Jazeera.
In 1997, the Indonesian economy was reeling from the effects of the Asian financial crisis. The population was struggling amid food shortages and increasing unemployment. This was the backdrop to the demonstrations, increasingly violent, which took place against then President Suharto’s 32-year authoritarian rule.
At the vanguard of these demonstrations were students like Patria, and their goal – the removal of Suharto – was achieved in May 1998.
But it came at a price.
As opposition to Suharto gathered steam between 1997 and 1998, pro-democracy activists began to disappear. In total, 23 went missing. One was found dead, nine, including Patria, were released, 13 remain missing.
Although a military tribunal found 11 Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) soldiers guilty of involvement in the abductions, and receiving sentences of between one and two years in prison, for Patria and others, this does not represent justice for what he suffered. Nor for the families of those still missing.
“The military tribunal means nothing. Some of those soldiers have since become high-ranking officers in the military and what about the generals responsible for the abductions?” says Patria.
The pain needs to be relieved. Some of them don't even know where their sons and daughters are buried
Legal dead end
The issue of enforced disappearances is one of the country’s seven unresolved human rights violations. The other cases, stretching back to 1965, concern alleged massacre, arbitrary detention, mass rape and torture.
According to the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), a state-sponsored body, in each case, the alleged perpetrators were the military, the police, or state-sponsored militias.
For decades, activists, victims and their families have been pushing for the creation of special human rights courts to hear these cases and bring the perpetrators to justice.
In 2000, the country passed a law that allowed for the creation of human rights courts to try cases of alleged human rights violations. However, to date, no one has been found guilty in these courts.
Komnas HAM, has completed enquiries into each case, recommending they be investigated by the Attorney General’s Office (AGO). Citing a lack of evidence, the AGO has rejected each enquiry, leaving the process at an impasse.
Successive governments have disappointed the families of victims in these cases, says Patria. “The pain needs to be relieved. Some of them don’t even know where their sons and daughters are buried. We need apologies from the perpetrators, reconciliation between them and the victims, and after that, the courts.”
Culture of impunity
In October 2014, victims and their families were given new hope when President Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, entered office. He made the resolving of past human rights violations a key plank of his manifesto.
However, a series of moves since Jokowi took office have left both activists and victims disheartened about the prospects of human rights justice under the new administration.
Poengky Indarti, executive director of Indonesian human rights watchdog Imparsial, told Al Jazeera, the president is “weak in the face of powerful political influences”.
“Jokowi is surrounded by strong generals who are encouraging a culture of impunity within the administration because they want to protect themselves from prosecution. They’re making it very difficult for the president to set up human rights courts,” Indarti says.
She reflects an alarm felt by human rights activists at recent high-level legal appointments they deem to be political. The posts include that of the law and human rights minister as well as the attorney general (who presides over the institution that has the power to prosecute the seven cases).
“The appointees are from parties that supported Jokowi in the recent election, so he needs to accommodate these interests. But the track record of these individuals show they have little commitment to human rights, meaning it’s less likely they will push for human rights courts.”
Campaigners see a recent prisoner release as politically symbolic. In November, Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto was released on parole. He was nine years into a 14-year sentence for his involvement in the murder of a prominent rights activist, Munir Said Thalib. Rights groups believe the masterminds of Munir’s murder have never been identified or punished.
The government defended its position stating that Priyanto has met the terms of his parole.
Now there is a legal impasse between Komnas HAM and the AGO. Indarti’s organisation recommends that the Indonesian president establish a human rights unit within his office. However, she is not optimistic about the response.
The President wants to resolve these cases and he wants to establish a policy on whether we should have human rights courts to settle these cases.
New administration and new steps
Despite a wave of pessimism among victims and activists, Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly tells Al Jazeera that the new government is committed to human rights.
“Myself, the attorney general and the coordinating political, legal and security affairs minister are going to meet to see what steps we need to take to resolve these cases,” he says. Adding the government will review the facts and evidence in each case to establish a plan to resolve the legal impasse.
Laoly refutes all claims the president is weak on human rights issues or that he is excessively influenced by generals within his administration.
“No, I don’t think it’s like that at all. The president wants to resolve these cases and he wants to establish a policy on whether we should have human rights courts to settle these cases.”
Laoly adds, that the government will attempt to re-establish the country’s truth and reconciliation commission, abolished in 2006 after being deemed unconstitutional.
“This is a priority for the government and there’s political will to move forward on this and on these cases,” he says.
Indonesia has ratified a raft of key international human rights mechanisms but has yet to ratify the International Convention on Enforced Disappearances or the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The government says it is taking steps to do so.
This may not appease activists acting for grieving families such as Indarti, who pledges that weekly demonstrations will continue to be held outside the Presidential Palace.
For Nezar Patria, living with the after effects of torture and concerned for missing loved ones, none of the measures he has heard about seems to bring the justice he craves any closer.
“I’m more concerned about where my friends are. The military must take responsibility. They took us, so they must bring us all back – dead or alive.”