Indigenous activist arrested

Down to Earth No 61  May 2004

Bestari Raden, a well-known environmentalist and indigenous activist, was arrested by the military in Aceh in March, while on a government mission to review the controversial Ladia Galaska road scheme.

Military personnel from the 0108 Southeast Aceh District Command (Kodim) arrested Bestari Raden on March 23rd. After being held at the military command in Kutacane, where he was interrogated by the command's intelligence chief, Bestari was handed over to the Southeast Aceh police at Tapak Tuan. He remained under arrest at the time of writing.

Environmentalists and human rights activists in Indonesia and internationally condemned Bestari's detention. The environment group WALHI issued an urgent action appeal, calling for his release and stating that the arrest had violated Indonesian and international laws. Amnesty International also issued an alert. It is feared that the arrest signals a widening of the clamp-down by the security forces against members of civil society organisations in the war-torn territory. Human rights defenders and humanitarian workers have been targeted over recent months.

When arrested, Bestari Raden was acting in his capacity as a member of a government team assigned to review sections of the controversial Ladia Galaska road project. The team's membership and activities, which were set up under a joint agreement by the forestry, environment and settlement and infrastructure ministers, had already been approved by the military authorities. The 500 km Ladia Galaska road, currently under construction and strongly opposed by NGOs, cuts through the 2.6 million hectare Leuser Ecosystem - one of the world's richest areas of tropical rainforest (see DTE 60; 58 & 55 for background). On the day of his arrest, Bestari and the team had just completed their task of observing the Blangkejeran-Pinding-Lokop section of the road.


Bestari was arrested on charges of organising a referendum on Aceh's political status in the Tapak Tuan area and being behind a 1999 incident in which a logging base camp owned by PT Medan Remaja Timber was burned down. Bestari has denied these charges, saying that at the time of the PT MRT incident, he was attending the first congress of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN). Press reports also said Bestari was arrested on suspicion of being acting commander of GAM (Free Aceh Movement) for the Tapak Tuan area - a charge refuted by GAM.

Torture and ill treatment are routine in military and police custody in Aceh. Bestari has been held in police custody in the territory on three previous occasions and was badly beaten up on at least one of these. His family have also suffered threats and intimidation. He has, in effect, been forced to live outside Aceh - in Jakarta - for the last four years.

The real reason for his arrest this time is believed to be connected to Bestari's campaign against deforestation in Aceh and the Ladia Galaska road project itself. Bestari is a well-known outspoken figure in the indigenous peoples and environmental movements. From 2001 - 2003 he served as Co-ordinator on AMAN's Council for the western region, covering Java and Sumatra. Last year he was invited to advise the government working group on the National Forests and Land Rehabilitation Movement announced in March last year. In 2004 he played an active part in bringing together a coalition of NGOs working for the environment and for democracy in an umbrella organisation called the Environmental Caucus, of which he is co-ordinator.

Aceh's forests are used by both military and police, as a source of extra-budgetary funds, with both security forces involved in illegal logging in the territory. Conflicts over control of timber have led to armed clashes between military and police, both of whom were beyond the control of the civilian government long before martial law was imposed in Aceh in May 2003. The security forces are known to support the Ladia Galaska road project because it will open yet more areas for them to plunder. Bestari's arrest, like the military campaign against human rights NGO ELSHAM in West Papua, is a strong signal that the security forces will not tolerate any threat to their business interests.

There may also be a personal element to Bestari's arrest, as the police officer who requested his arrest was deputy chief of South Aceh police in 1999, the time of the logging base-camp burning. Adj. Chief Comr M Ali Husein was in charge when Bestari was detained - and badly mistreated - under South Aceh police custody. Now Bestari is once again in Husein's custody, prompting fears of further maltreatment.

Ali Husein, like many other police and military officers in timber-producing areas across the country, are publicly known to be protectors of illegal loggers and timber concession owners.

Bestari's colleagues in the environmental and indigenous peoples movement have called for his case to be transferred to a neutral place, as the Southeast Aceh police will not handle the case objectively under Husein. Environment minister Nabiel Makarim has recommended that the case be transferred to the Acehnese capital, Banda Aceh. The Ministry of Forestry has also called for an objective investigation and said it would provide Bestari with legal advisors. Secretary General at the ministry, Wahyudi Wardoyo, said the team sent to review the Ladia Galaska road had been trying to promote an objective investigation and had provided the documents to prove to the police that Bestari was working for the government.

Some activists suspect that Bestari is being used as a pawn in a much bigger game. His arrest has drawn the attention of environmental and human rights groups away from their active opposition to the Ladia Galaska road system. The team is due to produce its recommendations to Jakarta very soon. However, the word is that the government has already decided to go ahead and the team's real function is only to mitigate the worst impacts of the road.

(Source: WALHI Urgent Action 26/Mar/04; Jakarta Post 31/Mar/04, 6/Apr/04; Tempo 13-19/Apr/04; and others)


Urgent Action

Readers are asked write letters to the Indonesian authorities and their own relevant government ministers to protest against the detention of Bestari Raden. An English version of the WALHI Urgent Action is at


Illegal logging, corruption and Ladia Galaska

According to the Indonesian NGO network for forest conservation (SKEPHI), the extent of the corruption surrounding the Ladia Galaska project is an open secret in Aceh. The police, military and local political elite are deeply involved in illegal logging activities within the Leuser Ecosystem.

Deforestation in Aceh as a whole has reached 270,000 hectares a year, according to official figures. Illegal logging is backed by military and police and is at its worst inside the Gunung Leuser National Park, an 800,000 ha area within the larger Leuser Ecosystem. Logs and processed wood are smuggled out of Aceh from locations on the West and East coast, to Malaysia, India and China, according to SKEPHI. The group calculates that state losses from illegal logging in Aceh amounted to Rp 36.7 trillion (USD 4.25 billion) between 1999 and 2004 - or Rp 7.3 trillion (USD 850,000) per year.

In an open letter to the national police chief General Da'i Bachtiar, the NGO names four entrepreneurs and local politicans (including two district assembly members) who have been arrested and investigated on suspicion of illegal logging, but then released. The letter says the police and martial law authorities in Aceh are trying to undermine the credibility of the team assigned to review the project, by stigmatising and criminalising one of its members. SKEPHI reports that the head of the Southeast Aceh district assembly and timber baron H. Umuruddin Deski, was detained and investigated by the martial law authorities several months ago. He was reported to be operating freely again after bribing his way out of custody.

A local NGO reported that there had been an increase in illegal logging since the imposition of martial law in May 2003.

SKEPHI, along with WALHI and PBHI are key members of the NGO Alliance Against the Ladia Galaska Road. The Alliance has warned the government about dangers of more fatal flooding and landslides in Aceh and North Sumatra. It predicts that if the Ladia Galaska project continues at least 5,000 lives will be lost over the next ten years.

(Source: SKEPHI open letter to Indonesia's police chief 14/Apr/04; SKEPHI deforestation and illegal logging data in Aceh, 16/Apr/04; SKEPHI press briefing 2/Apr/04. Contact: