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US Protests Indonesian Detentions  - 2004-09-27

The United States ambassador in Jakarta has visited the Indonesian president to protest at the continued detention of five executives of a Denver, Colorado-based mining company. The five are employees of a gold mine that has been accused of making local residents sick by polluting the water supply.

The five men, an American, an Australian and three Indonesians, all work for P.T. Newmont Minahasa Raya, or NMR, which until last month operated a gold mine on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

NMR, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corporation, is accused of leaking mercury and arsenic into the local water supply, causing illness among people living nearby. The company strongly denies the accusations, saying it has had the water repeatedly tested by independent laboratories, but it says it will cooperate fully with the police investigation.

On Monday, U.S. ambassador Ralph Boyce stepped into the fray, visiting outgoing President Megawati Sukarnoputri and then visiting the detained men at the local police headquarters.

Ambassador Boyce said that given the company's promise to cooperate, it was inappropriate to lock up its employees, who are sharing a cell block with convicted terrorists.

"We do not believe these five are a threat to flight," he said. "Newmont has been very actively supporting the investigation into the allegations about the situation up in North Sulawesi, I'm completely confident that Newmont will continue to be very active in this process and in our view there is no real need for the five individuals to be detained."

Under Indonesian law, producing pollution that causes sickness is punishable by up to 15 years in jail. NMR says it has commissioned independent surveys which show that the water in Buyat Bay, downstream from its mine, is safe.

An Indonesian civic group has filed a group-action against the company, claiming $550 million in damages and reparations.

Foreign investors in Indonesia frequently complain that they are the victims of arbitrary and frivolous court cases.