Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Freeing Political Prisoners: A Fresh Start?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Freeing Political Prisoners: A Fresh Start?

Article excerpt

After 4-1/2 years, Sri Rahayu has only days left to wait.

Standing outside Jakarta's Cipinang prison in a beige Muslim headdress and flowered skirt, she explains how student leader Nuku Sulaiman was jailed here in 1994, a week before they were to get married.

His crime? Making a bumper sticker that called former President Suharto "a master of all disaster." Mr. Sulaiman's sentence ends in August, but there's a chance he could be home this week. As one of its first official acts, the government of President B.J. Habibie will give amnesty to political prisoners jailed for criticizing Suharto. News of the prisoner release brought such a press of relatives, activists, and onlookers to Cipinang yesterday that crowds blocked the road fronting the whitewashed building. But even as people celebrated, many spoke of their distrust of the government's gesture, a tension that points up the challenges ahead for Indonesia and its new government. "Habibie is in a weak position. He needs to do this to win legitimacy from the people," says Bonar Tigar, an activist who spent five years in jail for criticizing Suharto. "How he {manages the prisoner release} is one of the first tests for the government, whether they really want to listen to the people, if they really want reform." Habibie trying to break with past The announcement is just one of several ways Mr. Habibie's government is trying to establish a clear break between itself and the old regime. Government agencies and state-run firms said yesterday they would begin canceling and reviewing contracts with firms associated with the Suharto family. And an Army announcement that 14 soldiers are suspects in the shooting deaths of six anti- Suharto demonstrators indicates the military is also meeting new standards. At a press conference inside Cipinang, Justice Minister Muladi acknowledged the effort, saying the prisoner release would give Indonesia a more positive international image. A kinder, gentler reputation would help Habibie as he appeals for international help in rebuilding the economy. Today an International Monetary Fund team arrives to decide whether to resume its $43 billion bailout. …

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