Indonesia urged to take care in exhuming suspected mass graves from 1960s massacres

JAKARTA (AFP) - Indonesia must use forensic experts to help with exhuming suspected mass graves from 1960s anti-communist massacres to preserve crucial evidence and identify victims, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged on Tuesday (May 24).

The rights group said it had written to the government about the matter after the authorities announced this month they would form a team to investigate what activists say are mass graves.

"Mass graves are legally crime scenes, they should be treated as such," Mr Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for HRW, told AFP.

The group warned "spontaneous and disorganised" exhumations could complicate victim identification and destroy evidence, and also urged the government to arrange security at suspected grave sites.

The purge in 1965-1966 was one of the worst killings of the last century and saw at least 500,000 alleged communists and sympathisers perish, but had long remained a taboo subject in Indonesia.

The government re-opened the painful episode last month by backing a series of public discussions into the atrocity for the first time.

After the discussions, President Joko Widodo ordered Security Minister Luhut Panjaitan to launch a probe.

Activists handed over information about 122 sites on Java and Sumatra islands they said were mass graves, and Panjaitan announced that the government would begin examining some of them.

In a statement, HRW also urged foreign governments and the United Nations to support the mass grave investigations, and for international donors to help preserve and analyse evidence.

Mr Agus Barnas, a senior security ministry official, insisted experts would be involved in the exhumations, but gave no further details. The exhumations have not yet begun.

The mass killings happened around the time General Suharto came to power, and during his 32-year, iron-fisted rule the official narrative was that they were necessary to rid the country of communism.

The massacres, conducted by local groups supported by the security forces, began after Suharto put down a coup on Oct 1, 1965, that the authorities blamed on communists.