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Indonesia Sentences 9 for Involvement in Mostly Christian Separatist Movement - 2004-01-13

A court in Indonesia's Maluku Islands has sentenced nine men to prison terms up to 15 years for their involvement in a mostly Christian separatist movement.

The district court in the Maluku capital of Ambon convicted the nine of treason. Two senior members of the separatist Maluku Sovereignty Front, known as RMS, received 15-year prison sentences Monday, while six others were given 13 years. A judge said the ninth man was sentenced to only 30 months in jail because he said he was an Indonesian citizen, signaling his loyalty to the country.

The Maluku Sovereignty Front is a tiny, mostly non-violent group that advocates self-determination for the Malukus, a group of small islands in eastern Indonesia. The separatist group originally got most of its support from Maluku emigrants living in the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s, but most of that has largely dwindled.

The government is still smarting over losing control of East Timor in a U.N.-sponsored plebiscite in 1999, and has repeatedly stated it will not stand for any attempts to break up the country.

In 1999 violence between Christians and Muslims broke out in the Maluku Islands. Nearly 10,000 people died during the next two years. Much of that violence was blamed on the Laskar Jihad, a militant Islamic group that wanted to kick all Christians out of the region. A government crackdown on the group in the past few years has left it nearly dead.

Maluku sociologist at Jakarta's University of Indonesia, Thamrin Tomagola, said the government moved to jail the nine men because it wants to show that it is sticking to a Maluku peace pact reached in the town of Malinao in 2002. "One of the council in that Malinao agreement was to take to the court anybody who has something to do with either RMS or any kind of terrorist organization," he said.

While the vast majority of Indonesians are Muslim, in the Malukus, the Muslim and Christian communities are about the same size. Heavy fighting between the two groups has stopped in the Malukus, but sporadic skirmishes break out occasionally.