SINGAPORE — A week before a state visit by President Clinton, an Indonesian court Monday sentenced the leader of the country's largest independent labor union to three years in prison for allegedly inciting workers to violence earlier this year.
Muchtar Pakpahan was the fourth senior official of the Indonesian Prosperous Labor Union to be sentenced to prison in connection with riots in the Sumatran city of Medan in April. Another 10 union leaders remain on trial for fomenting the disturbances, which left one ethnic Chinese factory owner dead and caused extensive property damage before being suppressed by army troops.
A statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta said the Clinton Administration regrets Pakpahan's conviction. "We believe that he should not be held accountable for unintended violence in connection with protests over legitimate labor demands," it said.
Winston Lord, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, acknowledged last week that the United States and Indonesia "have problems in the human rights area" and said Clinton plans to discuss them with Indonesia's President Suharto on Nov. 16 during a state visit.
Clinton will be in Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, next week attending a summit of leaders from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group. The leaders are expected to adopt steps making the Asian region a free trade area early in the next century, but the Americans have ruled out discussing labor issues at the meeting.
Last week, a group of 74 members of Congress called on Clinton to use his talks with the 73-year-old Suharto, who like many Javans uses only one name, to discuss "severe labor rights violations" in the country.
The Suharto regime has been accused recently of abandoning a policy of relative openness and cracking down on dissent and freedom of the press. Three of the country's most popular newspapers were closed earlier this year after printing articles considered embarrassing to the government.
In a statement issued before Pakpahan's conviction, the human rights group Amnesty International called on the United States to issue a clear declaration stressing the importance of human rights in its relations with Asian nations. The Administration was widely chided in June for bowing to Chinese threats and granting Beijing renewed most-favored-nation trade status despite a renewed crackdown on human rights activists.
"Amnesty International is concerned that the pre-APEC crackdown has resulted in serious human rights violations, including: the arbitrary arrest, and in some cases, torture and ill-treatment, of political detainees; the unfair trial and arbitrary imprisonment of labor activists and workers, and the unlawful execution of alleged criminals," the group said.
Amnesty said it was particularly concerned about the use of special police forces to arrest people in Jakarta in an effort to spruce up the capital's image before the APEC meeting. While APEC officials will hold talks in Jakarta, Suharto has invited Clinton and leaders from 17 Asian countries to hold a retreat with him next Tuesday in the foothill resort of Bogor, 30 miles to the south.
The U.S. Embassy said the conviction of Pakpahan would be one element that will be taken into consideration as the Administration deliberates whether to revoke Indonesia's trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). The benefits cover about $650 million worth of trade, or 14% of Indonesian goods shipped to the United States.
The U.S. trade representative is investigating charges that Indonesia denies its workers the right to freedom of association. If the charges are upheld, the Administration can revoke the GSP benefits.
But the Administration has placed the investigation on hold since August, ostensibly while a "dialogue" is taking place on the controversy. Labor groups have accused the Administration of seeking to avoid embarrassing Suharto before the APEC meeting, which the Indonesian leader is said by diplomats to regard as his defining moment as a statesman.
The court convictions in Medan appear to deal a life-threatening blow to the free labor movement in Indonesia. Union officials said that their operations have been severely curtailed since Pakpahan's arrest and that the group's 350,000 members have been afraid to express themselves.
Pakpahan has denied inciting the workers to violence. At the time of the strike in Medan in April, he was in eastern Java.