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Indonesia 25 June 2003

US journalist held by police in Aceh for alleged visa offence

Freelance US journalist William Nessen surrendered to the Indonesian army on 24 June and has since been interrogated at length by police in Banda Aceh (capital of Aceh province in northern Sumatra), who accused him of violating immigration laws and misusing his journalist’s visa. He is also suspected of spying for or supporting the rebel Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Nessen, whose wife is from Aceh, has been covering (from rebel territory) for the past month or so the Indonesian army’s drive against the rebels and is planning to write a book and make a film about the conflict.

He refused for several days to give himself up to the army for fear of being killed and was shot at a few times. After negotiating for several weeks to leave the province, he finally surrendered, exhausted, to army soldiers in the Simpang region (northern Aceh). He was interrogated and then handed over to police. He is being held under a detention order that expires on 11 July and could be sentenced to up to five years in prison.

Under martial law, in force in Aceh since 19 May, journalists are banned from reporting alongside the rebels, who the government dubs "terrorists."

Call for Indonesian army to guarantee safety of American journalist

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) called today on Indonesian officials to ensure the safety of American freelance journalist William Nessen, who is missing in the Indonesian province of Aceh (northern Sumatra), where government troops are fighting separatist rebels.

"The authorities have a duty to protect civilians, including journalists, in wartime under the 1949 Geneva Conventions," said the organisation’s secretary-general, Robert Ménard, in a letter to Maj. Gen. Endang Surawaya, who is in charge of applying martial law in Aceh. He expressed extreme concern about the fate of Nessen, who has been missing since June 10 after covering for the past few weeks the clashes between the army and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

The army has refused US embassy requests to ensure Nessen’s safety. Ménard called on the army to see the journalist was allowed to leave the war zone.

Nessen called his wife, Shadia Marhadan, on a sat-phone on 10 June and told her he was covering fighting from behind the rebel lines and that the army had just opened fire, forcing them to flee. She heard shots and the line went dead. Since then, she has had no news of him and fear his life is in danger.

Nessen has been reporting on the Aceh rebellion for several years as a freelance reporter-photographer for many papers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Independent and The Sydney Morning Herald. He has been unable to send stories in recent weeks because the army has blocked communication lines. His wife says he is properly accredited by the Indonesian government, but information minister Wahi Supriyadi has denied this, saying that "as a tourist, he has no business being there."

Maj. Gen. Sarawaya told a press conference on June 9 he was aware of Nessen’s situation but said the army could not guarantee the safety of foreign journalists in the province. An army spokesman in Aceh, Col. Ditya Sudarsono, said he did not know where he was but that there would be no future problem if he clearly identified himself as a foreign journalist.

Since martial law was declared on 19 May, the army has tightened its control of news about the Aceh fighting and Gen. Surawaya has banned journalists from reporting rebel statements. The US-based Committee to Project Journalists said several local and foreign journalists had been arrested, interrogated and threatened by security forces after reporting on abuses by police and the army.

At least six teams of journalists were targeted by snipers along roads in the province between 21 and 27 May, though none were wounded. The authorities also said they would bar foreigners, including journalists, from Aceh after a German tourist was killed by army gunfire at the beginning of this month.

The separatist rebellion in Aceh has gone on for 26 years and has left a toll of 10,000 dead, most of them civilians. At least 150 have died since the army’s new drive to crush the GAM, which the government calls a "terrorist" organisation.

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