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U.S. Freelance Reporter Billy Nessen Faces a Five Year Sentence in Indonesia

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We speak with filmmaker David Martinez who traveled with Billy Nessen through Aceh, former U.S. embassy official Edward McWilliams and Lesley McCulloch who was jailed in Aceh.

U.S. freelance journalist, William Nessen, is facing five years in prison in Indonesia. He is being held and interrogated by the Indonesian police officially on immigration charges.

The Indonesian military has accused Nessen, an accredited journalist, of spying for the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). The GAM had been fighting for an independent homeland on the northern tip of Sumatra island for over a quarter of a century.

They recently signed a ceasefire with the Indonesian military, which the military then broke.

Indonesian troops have killed thousands of Acehnese over the last decade.

Nessen has closely followed various movements working for human rights and independence in Aceh.

He returned to Aceh shortly before May 19th, the day President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law in Aceh and activated 50,000 Indonesian troops to crush the independence movement there. They have killed many civilians since.

As a journalist, Nessen was traveling with the GAM, which is leading the struggle for the Acehnese independence.

The Indonesian military demanded Nessen surrender by June 14th. He hid in the jungle which is under fierce attack by the military demanding he not be questioned and be allowed to leave the country.

He surrendered on June 24th and is being held in Banda Aceh, the capital of the province of Aceh.

His mother met him last week after getting permission to enter the region.

  • “Indonesia: The Dirty War in Aceh” — A clip from Jonathan Miller’s documentary.
  • David Martinez, filmmaker who traveled with Billy Nessen through Aceh.
    Related Link: SubCine
  • Edward McWilliams, former U.S. Embassy official in Jakarta.
  • Lesley McCulloch, nurse in Aceh, jailed on Visa violations.


AMY GOODMAN: Billy Nessen is a freelance journalist from the United States. He is facing five years in prison in Indonesia. The Indonesian military says he was spying for the Free Aceh Movement, which has been fighting for an independent homeland for a quarter of a century. But Nessen was working in Indonesia as a freelance journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle and covering the Free Aceh Movement rebels. His mother tried to see him on Tuesday but was forced to return to the Indonesian capital because the Indonesian government said she lacked permission, the area is now under martial law. Thousands of Indonesians, Acehnese have been killed by the Indonesian military. The crackdown is the most serious in many years.

We’re joined on the phone right now by a woman who was jailed by the Indonesian government for a number of months, to talk about the situation there and what Billy Nessen faces. LESLIE MCCULLOCH was in our studio on Democracy Now soon after she got out of jail. She is now in Malaysia, Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about how serious the situation is for Billy Nessen, the Indonesian government known for accusing journalists of spying.

LESLIE MCCULLOCH: Yes. I think it’s probably possible that Billy will be charged only with violating his visa. His case has gone to the prosecutors and no further charge has been made. And the American embassy has been making representations both in Jakarta and locally, that Billy in fact did have journalist — does have journalist credentials, and that the only thing he doesn’t have is a special permission, letter of permission to go to Aceh from the foreign ministry in Jakarta. Before martial law was implemented, a journalist did not need the special permission, but since martial law, this additional letter of permission is required. But of course Billy was already in the conflict area when martial law was imposed and it was impossible for him to get the letter. So this is his only problem, it’s quite a minor offense really.

AMY GOODMAN: DAVID MARTINEZ is on the line with us. He is a filmmaker who traveled with Billy through Aceh. How was Billy Nessen — how did he end up in Indonesian custody?

DAVID MARTINEZ: Well, I think he was reporting in the conflict area and as Lesley said, then the situation increased dramatically when the Indonesian Army started a new offensive and everything got a lot more serious. And it was simply impossible, almost impossible for him to even — maybe to even know that he needed the special permission and certainly very difficult for him to get out and attempt to get it. So it was sort of a post facto from his perspective, that you need this. And as soon as the situation got really serious he did call them and say, look, I’m here. This is an American journalist in here, you need to let me out and they held up their offensives for a bit and negotiated him coming out.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up getting out safely?



DAVID MARTINEZ: Well, I left a long time ago. When I left there was a cease fire in effect.

That I think was signed on December 9. It lasted around six months and so when I went in and out it was pretty easy.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn now to a clip of a film, Indonesia, Dirty war in Aceh by journalist Jonathan Miller. This is a film that aired on channel 4 in Britain. It was awhile before this period of martial law that the situation still grave, it was when researcher Lesley McCullough was in jail. Of course you met Jonathan Miller when you were being held. But this is an excerpt of what the people of Aceh are going through.

TAPE: Indonesia: Dirty War in Aceh

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Miller, reporting from Aceh, his film Indonesia, Dirty War in Aceh. And he was not even describing the worst times in Aceh. As of May 19, the Indonesian military has launched its latest offensive in Aceh, declaring martial law. Many civilians there have since been killed. We’re also on the line—in addition to Lesley McCullough who was jailed by the Indonesian military, a researcher and recent release, and DAVID MARTINEZ who traveled with Billy Nessen in Aceh who was trying to document what was going on there—EDWARD MCWILLIAMS, former political counselor with the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the situation now with this crackdown? Would you say right now in Congress that sentiment is changing? For a long period of time, both the Bush administration and the Clinton administration supported the Indonesian military, but with this latest crackdown as obvious as it is to the world what’s happening.

EDWARD MCWILLIAMS: Well, I think that there is a significant attention to the issue in Congress. We NGO’s, we’ve been lobbying the issue now for several months. But I think what’s difficult for us is simply to know what’s happening inside. And I think the case of Billy Nessen is an example of this. We have essentially a campaign of intimidation run by the military, essentially by the government of Indonesia to prevent people from knowing what’s going on inside. Human rights advocates that are domestic, but also international NGOs have been denied access to Aceh, or if they’re in Aceh, allowed to move around. Western journalists cannot visit the area. I was talking to a western journalist from Jakarta yesterday morning, and she expressed frustration that she can’t basically report for her newspaper, a major one in the United States, because of the problem of getting access to Aceh. So I think what we have here essentially is an effort to prevent the international community from knowing what’s going on. And I think this is very dangerous for the people of Aceh of course.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the U.S. military sending — selling weapons to the Indonesian military?

EDWARD MCWILLIAMS: What we understand is that the Indonesian military is using OB-10 Broncos which are U.S. made, F-16’s, which are U.S. made, C-130 Hercules which are US made. Now these were purchased some time ago, but of course they are in a position of needing parts and spares for these weapon systems. When we raised our concern with the State Department about the situation, wherein our weapon systems are being used against civilians, essentially they say that there were no conditions of sale that would allow us to protest the use of these weapon systems. Reminds us of what happened in East Timor and in Papua, where U.S. weapon systems were also used against civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: DAVID MARTINEZ, you traveled with Billy Nessen, he faces five years in jail.

The Indonesian military knows well, he was covering the whole situation there. You met not only with the rebels but also with the Indonesian military in your travels, is that right?

DAVID MARTINEZ: That’s right. We were trying to show both sides of the story. And that’s part of the work a journalist does, it wouldn’t have been right to only show one side and the Indonesian military at that time was more than happy to talk to us. And I think what they’re upset about is that Billy was trying to show the other side that they don’t want anyone to hear, which is why anyone might want to support an independence movement in Aceh.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Ed McWilliams what are the chances that Billy Nessen will soon be freed?

EDWARD MCWILLIAMS: I think that what we’re going to see is probably what happened to Leslie McCullough, and Joy Lee Sadler, another American who was detained. He will be held for some period of time to make a point to other journalists that they shouldn’t be going in there, even without permission, to essentially report on the conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Well I want to thank you all for being with us. Ed McWilliams, DAVID MARTINEZ, Leslie McCullough.

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