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Trade Unionists Imprisoned For Their BeliefsCoen Husein Pontoh, Mochamad Sholeh and Dita Indah Sari are all prisoners of conscience, arrested and unjustly convicted following a peaceful union demonstration. They are currently serving prison sentences.Coen Husein Pontoh, known as Pontoh, is a coordinator of the Indonesian Peasants’ Union (Serikat Tani Indonesia or STN) which was founded to provide education and organizational assistance to peasants.

Pontoh joined workers from ten factories in the Tandes Industrial Zone, Surabaya city in East Java who held a demonstration in July 1996 for an increase in the minimum daily wage from 4000 rupiah to 7000 rupiah (at that time worth approximately from US$1.70 to US$3) and for an end to the role of the Armed Forces in Indonesian politics.

According to reports the demonstration was peaceful. Nevertheless the protestors were blocked by a heavy contingent of police and military who broke up the demonstration, beating some of those taking part.

Pontoh was one of the labour and student activists arrested at the demonstration and during the following day. Three of those arrested were kept in detention: Pontoh, Mochamad Sholeh, a 22 year old student and activist from the Indonesian Student’s Solidarity for Democracy, and Dita Indah Sari, a 24-year old woman and leader of the Centre for Indonesian Workers’ Struggle who had worked steadfastly to improve workers’ pay and conditions in Indonesia.

Leader Still In Prison

‘I am not afraid, even if I have to spend the rest of my life behind bars. I will not stop here, I will continue to fight for the interest of workers.’

Statement by Coen Husein Pontoh to the court. One union countryThe Indonesian government only formally recognises one trade union. There are many cases of other labour activists being arrested and meetings being broken up . The ILO has referred to the serious and worsening infringements of basic human and trade union rights which characterises the general situation of workers in Indonesia, and expressed it’s deep concern over allegations of murder, ‘disappearance’, arrest and detention of a number of trade-union leaders and workers.

Pontoh was charged with subversion and ‘spreading hatred’ against the government of Indonesia. One of the accusations Pontoh faced at his trial was that he was involved in setting up organisations to take political actions or make political statements. He was also accused of being linked to a special congress of the independent Peoples Democratic Party (PRD), to which the STN is affiliated. The congress had produced documents calling for workers to be given more power to build a democratic coalition government, and for international labour standards to be implemented to protect the rights of workers, as well as demands for other basic human rights.

Banning of PRD

The PRD, an independent left-wing political party was officially banned in September 1997 after the authorities accused it of masterminding riots in Jakarta in July 1996. 14 members of the PRD and of its affiliate organisations, including Pontoh, Mochamad Sholeh and Dita Indah Sari have been sentenced to prison terms of up to 13 years.

Unfair trials

Pontoh and Mochamad Sholeh are currently serving three-and-a-half year sentences after a trial which fell short of international standards of fairness and where statements from witnesses were used that were reportedly obtained under duress.

Dita Indah Sari is serving a five year sentence also after an unfair trial. During his time in prison Pontoh, along with other inmates, was beaten and kicked by military personnel who were bought in to control a prison riot in which Pontoh denies he was involved.

Human rights lawyers have called for an investigation into allegations of ill treatment against Pontoh and Mochamad Sholeh.

[ leader still in prison ]
Leader still in prison
‘Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.’
Article 20 of the UDHRTHE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTSAs well as articles on freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial and against ill-treatment, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also describes other fundamental rights for workers and trade-unionists:

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.’
Article 20

‘Everyone has the right to work…Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions’
Article 23

‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for… health and well-being’
Article 25

Sign your name in, and circulate within your trade union, the books circulating around the world in which countless other people are pledging to do everything in their power to promote the human rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Find out more about the Journey of the Book from your national Amnesty office.

Amnesty International concernsAmnesty International considers Pontoh, with Mochamad Sholeh and Dita Indah Sari to be prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for the non-violent expression of their political beliefs, and demands that they are immediately and unconditionally released.Amnesty International is concerned about Indonesia’s use of anti-subversion legislation against labour and human rights activists which may result in them facing long terms of imprisonment or even the death penalty. “Love Song for Marsinah”

Muchtar Pakpahan, head of the Indonesian Prosperous Workers Union, is another who fought for trade union rights only to be charged under anti-subversion legislation. Among his activities which the prosecution considered ‘subversive’ is the writing of a song “Love Song for Marsinah”, a tribute to a woman labour activist who was believed to have been murdered with the knowledge of the security forces in 1993. At the time of writing Muchtar Pakpahan’s trial is underway although it has been delayed for many months because of his serious ill health. In the meantime Muchtar Pakpahan is also serving a four year prison sentence in connection with labour riots in 1994. Despite being acquitted by the Supreme Court the sentence was re-instated in October 1996. Amnesty International considers Muchtar Pakpahan also to be a prisoner of conscience.


Pontoh has said he is prepared to spend the rest of his life in prison in the struggle for fundamental rights for working people. Throughout the world many other labour & human rights activists every day face the possibility of imprisonment, torture and even death in their work.

1. Write to the Indonesian authorities to:

Demand the immediate and unconditional release of Coen Husein Pontoh, Mochamad Sholeh, Dita Indah Sari, and all those imprisoned solely because of the non violent expression of their political beliefs.

Request the Indonesian Government to ratify ILO Convention 87 and to respect the rights of workers to establish and run organisations of their own choosing without undue interference.

In your letters you may want to acknowledge the current severe economic problems in Indonesia and to point out that the rights of workers must not be ignored at this critical time.

2. In your own union, raise the cases of Pontoh and other workers whose fundamental human rights are under attack.

Send your appeals to the Indonesian authorities at the following addresses:

    President Suharto
    Presiden RI
    Istana Negara
    Jln Veteran
    Jakarta Pusat
    Minister of Justice
    Haji Utoyo Usman SH
    Menteri Kehakiman
    JL. H.R. Rasuna Said Kav 6-7
    Jakarta Selatan
    Dr Abdul Latief
    Minister of Manpower
    Menteri Tenaga Kerja
    Jalan Jenderal Gatot Subroto

Letters and messages of solidarity can be passed to Coen Husein Pontoh & Mochamad Sholeh at the prison where they are being held: LP Kalisosok, Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia

And to Dita Sari at:
LP Lowok Waru, Malang, East Java, Indonesia

3. Spread the message within your work-place and community.

Ask your trade-union to distribute copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to each of its members, so we can all be aware of the rights to which we are entitled.

4. Take part in Amnesty International’s campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998

Contact your national Section of Amnesty International to find out more. Ask your trade union nationally and locally to work with Amnesty International on the cases of victimised Trade Unionists and others targeted because of their work fighting for the rights to which we are all entitled.

The core International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventionsThe International Labour Organisation (ILO) is a body of the United Nations. Through its tri-partite conferences with governments, employers and workers organisations it has built up and monitors sets of standards, in the form of Conventions & Recommendations relating to freedom of association, the right to form and join trade unions, and other working conditions.Indonesia: ILO Convention 87 Not Ratified

Indonesia ratified ILO Convention number 98 on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining in 1957, which should protect workers from anti-union discrimination. However Indonesia has yet to ratify another of the core ILO conventions, number 87, on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, which establishes the right of workers to establish organisations of their own choosing and run them without undue interference.

The core ILO Conventions

    the freedom of association
    Number 87
    the right to organise and to bargain collectively
    Number 98
    the prohibition of all forms of forced labour
    Numbers 29 & 105

    the right to equal pay for work of equal value
    Number 100

    the freedom from discrimination in respect of employment/occupation
    Number 111

    the establishment of a minimum working age
    Number 131

Amnesty International Home Page

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