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Indonesia's crime-stoppers take justice into their own hands

On a back street of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, there is the usual seething mass of street life - pedicabs, buses bulging with people, and food stalls and shops huddled together in a seemingly disorganized bundle of humanity.

But over the past few weeks, there has been a particularly unpleasant sight on one stretch of road. A number of murder victims have been discovered there.

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Such a pattern of killings - once referred to as ''mystery deaths'' - has been going on for the last eight months, mainly on the heavily populated island of Java.

Many ordinary people, fearful about what they feel is a growing crime wave throughout this island nation in Southeast Asia, are in favor of the killings. The victims are known or suspected


Five months ago, the estimated death toll reached 2,000. Now it has nearly doubled and there has been some public outcry despite the tight military control in this relatively poor country of 150 million people.

The Legal Aid Institute (LBH) here, an independent group of legal aid workers that often protests human-rights violations in Indonesia, does not doubt who is responsible. It says the Army, and perhaps some police, have taken it upon themselves to commit these extrajudicial killings.

At a news conference called Dec. 10 to coincide with Human Rights Day, the institute's chairman, Mulya Lubis, said that not only was this operation still going on, it was intensifying.

He said that in East Java in particular there was evidence that the whole operation was growing and that it was spreading to some areas in the sparsely populated island of Sumatra.

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Another Legal Institute lawyer, Adnan Buyung Nasution, said it was the responsibility of the Indonesian government to stop the killings. He said everyone knew the Army was behind the operation, and that such a state of affairs was very humiliating for a country like Indonesia.

''I have written to General L. B. (Benny) Murdani (commander of Indonesia's armed forces, Pangab) telling him, as a friend, to stop it. Not many people dare , but I dare, in my own country, to tell him this.''

Stories of how these killings are carried out are remarkably similar. People say that hit squads of four men arrive at the house of a known or suspected criminal, usually at night. He is taken away, shot, and then trussed up with plastic string.

At first, the government refused to comment on the killings. Later, Army chief Murdani said it was possible that the security forces had been involved but that it was more likely that most of the killings had been the result of fights between gali-gali - Mafia-style gangs. He also said that those shot by security forces had probably been trying to escape.

Mr. Nasution said such an explanation was impossible. ''Those killed had been shot at very close range, probably less than one meter,'' he said.

Some members of the government have been forthright in their support for the killings. The attorney general, Ismail Saleh, described the hit squads as ''guardian angels.''

And early on in the campaign the minister of justice, Lt. Gen. Ali Said, chose a more graphic and perhaps more apposite description. He said the campaign was similar to a ''surgical operation to save the life of the patient.''

While at one stage the government banned any reporting of bodies being found, the papers now carry almost daily reports again, complete with graphic descriptions. These are usually accompanied by a few words from local residents about what they call ''the recidivist,'' and how they feel he has been given his just fate.

But others are less sure.

Former vice-president and foreign minister, Adam Malik, said he wanted to find out just what the motives behind the killings were, saying there should be at least some recourse in the courts. He announced that as a member of the International Commission on Human-Rights Issues - a United Nations-sponsored body that investigates human-rights cases in a number of countries - he was compiling a report on the deaths.

The LBH chairman, Mr. Lubis, says the killings cannot be allowed to go on. If they are, there is the prospect that they could become an institutionalized form of punishment.

And, in a country which as recently as 1965-66 witnessed the slaughter of up to a million people in the aftermath of an abortive coup attempt, that prospect must be very frightening.

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