By Jennifer Huang | World Power I: Business & Law
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The oldest son of nine siblings, Jafar Siddiq Hamzah loved to watch courtroom dramas on state-run television, and in 1991 graduated from law school at Amir Hamzah University in the North Sumatran city of Medan.
“He said, ‘Indonesian law is like a spiderweb. It just catches the small animals, but never tries to get a big animal.’ That’s why he really wanted to be a lawyer,” recalled his sister.
Friends describe Hamzah as a man who smiled often, took pride in his recipe for fried rice, and worked tirelessly as an attorney for the Legal Aid Institute in Medan. His assignments included documenting government abuses and representing people too poor to afford to pay for legal help — including alleged members of GAM.
According to Zahara, her brother was targeted by the military and police after publicly protesting when of six of his clients burned to death in prison. Arsonists torched his office, but he continued working until the end of 1996, when neighbors reported that his family home in Lhokseumawe was under surveillance, and that three truckloads of soldiers visited his home in Medan.
Hamzah fled with his wife to New York City, where he started a human rights organization, the International Forum for Aceh (IFA), and drove a cab part-time while pursuing a master’s degree of political science at the New School for Social Research.
Under his leadership from 1998 through 2000, the IFA lobbied the U.S. government on its Indonesia policy, and sponsored international education and peace conferences in Bangkok, Washington, D.C., New York City and Aceh. The conferences were the first events to bring the Indonesian government and GAM to the same forum.
Former IFA director Robert Jereski said that Hamzah also started looking for avenues to bring a lawsuit against Mobil for human rights violations committed by soldiers deployed to protect natural gas facilities.
“Within fifteen minutes of meeting him,” recalled Jessica Rucell, a classmate at the New School, “he said, ‘Okay, we’re going to start a student group, it’ll be great! We’ll have panel discussions, movies, students writing their congressmen … It doesn’t matter if they don’t know about Aceh and Indonesia, we’ll tell them!’”
Hamzah, meanwhile, came upon the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1781, a law used recently by human rights groups to bring charges of human rights violations against corporations and government officials around the world.
Jereski said Hamzah had started to organize for a similar lawsuit in his homeland, and not long after began receiving death threats.
Though Jereski often saw his friend brush aside safety concerns, there were two emailed threats that Hamzah took seriously.
Jereski saved the e-mails. One, claiming to be from an Acehnese women’s student group, read, “… we don’t need to bring MOI [Mobil Oil Indonesia] to International Court … Do what ever you wish, but remember!! Death is waiting you Mr JAFAR.”
In the summer of 2000, Hamzah returned to home to open a branch of the International Forum for Aceh, and work on The Voice of Atjeh, the English-Acehnese newspaper he first started in 1999.
After traveling to Medan, the third largest city in Indonesia, he feared he was being followed, and Zahara recalled he kept in constant cell phone contact with his family and friends.
Suddenly, after more than a month in Indonesia, the phone calls stopped.
On August 5, Hamzah was kidnapped from a busy Medan street. Worried friends in New York called their congressional representatives; his sister traveled to Medan to search for him.
Three weeks later, the Los Angeles Times reported the discovery of his body — stripped, wrapped in barbed wire and almost unrecognizably mutilated — along with four others in a ravine 50 miles outside the city.