A former Berkeley political activist turned investigative journalist is under arrest in Indonesia. William “Billy” Nessen, who was filing reports for the San Francisco Chronicle and England’s Observer newspaper on the movement to establish a free state in the Aceh province of northern Indonesia, is being held by the country’s army.
Nessen surrendered in the presence of U.S. officials earlier this week. He had been with guerrillas in the free-Aceh campaign, known as GAB, since last May’s crackdown on the rebels by the Indonesian government.
Nessen had contacted the military and offered to turn himself in if he wasn’t killed, arrested or interrogated. But the country’s military commander in Aceh, Bambang Dharmono, has agreed only to ensure Nessen’s personal safety. Major General Endang Suwarya, head of the martial law administration in Aceh, has threatened to charge Nessen with spying— a death penalty offense.
First active in the successful effort to get the UC system to divest from South Africa in the mid-1980s, Nessen, 46, went on to work for anti-nuclear weapons campaigns with the Livermore Action Group and for human rights in Central America. In the late 80s he received his masters from the Columbia School of Journalism. He has worked as a freelancer since graduating on stories such as East Timor’s recent successful battle for independence.
Going from being an advocate for political change to covering those movements as a journalist was a natural transition for Nessen, say his former Berkeley activist colleagues.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he would be traveling with the guerrillas,” said Michael Sherman, who first met Nessen during the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s and now sits on Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Committee. “He was certainly sympathetic to the human rights situation that the people of Aceh were facing from the Indonesian army, which is notorious for human rights violations.”
For his longtime friends in Berkeley, Nessen’s plight is a major concern. Another member of the Peace and Justice Commission, John Lavine, is helping to circulate a letter that calls for the release of Nessen and his safe passage out of Indonesia. Lavine is also encouraging people to call the Indonesian embassy in Washington, D.C. on Nessen’s behalf. If he’s not freed by the time the commission meets again in September, Lavine says the commission will recommend to the city council that they adopt a resolution calling for Nessen’s release.
In addition to these local efforts, the Committee to Protect Journalists, faculty and staff at the Columbia School of Journalism, the San Francisco Local of the National
Writer’s Union and Media Alliance are all demanding Nessen be let go. His parents are currently in Indonesia trying to work out a deal with the government. Nessen’s wife, Shadia Marhaban, is an Aceh rights activist and interpreter. She was not with him while he was reporting from Aceh province.
Andrew Ross, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Executive Foreign and National Editor, said that while the paper is concerned about Nessen and supports all efforts to have him released, they haven’t had any contact with him since his last story on the conflict in December, 2002.
“It would be difficult for us to take the lead because probably the Indonesian authorities might say ‘Well, who the hell are you?” said Ross. However, Ross did say that as far as the Chronicle was aware, Nessen was not working as a spy.
“In all the dealings we’ve had with Bill that never came up,” says Ross. “We know that it is a little dodgy right now for journalists there and that the government is, shall we say, somewhat sensitive about Aceh. We’ve also written stories about how unpleasant the situation is in Aceh there now and how there have been allegations of human rights violations by the Indonesian authorities.”
Nessen was reported to have been writing a book on the conflict. In several telephone interviews over the past few weeks from the jungle of Aceh over his satellite phone, Nessen had said that he feared for his life if the Indonesian Army caught him. The Army also made it clear that they wanted to question him about his relationship with GAB and the location of their camps, according to news reports.
The efforts to free Nessen appear to be paying off. According to Lavine, Senator Richard Lugar, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has contacted the Indonesian government calling for Nessen’s release.
As of now there is no evidence that Nessen is being mistreated.
“The Indonesians have kept their word so far that he would not be harmed,” said Lin Neumann, the Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, who has discussed Nessen’s situation with the Indonesian military. “The next step is to allow him to leave the country as soon as possible.”
That couldn’t happen soon enough for Sherman. “It’s a very, very scary situation for him and I’m very worried about him,” he said. “Let’s get this man home safe and sound.”