Indonesian troops arrested McCulloch, an academic and freelance journalist, along with her friend, Joy Lee Sadler, while conducting security operations in Keuleut District in restive Aceh Province. The two were taken to the South Aceh District Police Station.
Soldiers also arrested the women’s Acehnese interpreter, Fitrah bin Amin, but she was soon released without charge.
Spokesman Maj. Taufik Sugiono told The Associated Press (AP) that the women were carrying a computer disk with digital images and documents relating to the rebel Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym, GAM. “We questioned them as they were foreigners carrying rebel documents in a conflict-area,” Sugiono told the AP. “We just wanted to know what are they doing here.” In interviews with journalists, McCulloch and Sadler later claimed that during their detention in South Aceh, they were sexually harassed, beaten, and threatened at knifepoint.
GAM rebels have been fighting for Aceh’s independence from Indonesia since 1976 in a conflict that has killed more than 12,000 people during the last decade alone. McCulloch, a British national who most recently worked as a lecturer at the University of Tasmania in Australia, has written frequently on Aceh, specifically about the military’s alleged profiteering from the resource-rich province. Sadler, a U.S. national, is a nurse who has treated refugees in conflict zones.
On September 17, police transferred McCulloch and Sadler to a detention center in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, and announced that the two were formally under investigation. Police threatened to accuse them of espionage but ultimately charged them with carrying out “activities incompatible with tourist visas” under Article 50 of the Immigration Law, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Though foreign correspondents accused of visa infractions in Indonesia have generally been deported, police expressed their intention to use this case as a stern warning. “Police will make strong efforts to intensively investigate so this can become a lesson for foreigners who violate the law in Aceh and Indonesia,” Aceh police spokesman Taufik Sutiyono told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
McCulloch, who maintains that she was visiting friends in Aceh, told journalists that she believes she was targeted because of her critical writings about alleged abuses committed by Indonesian security forces in Aceh.
Trial proceedings began in Banda Aceh on November 25, and on December 30, McCulloch and Sadler were sentenced to five months and four months in prison, respectively. While announcing his decision, Judge Asril Marwan said that McCulloch received the harsher sentence because her actions “could have threatened national security and the territorial integrity of the Republic of Indonesia,” according to London’s Guardian newspaper.
Both women will receive credit for time served, which means that McCulloch’s sentence is due to expire in February 2003. Sadler was freed on January 10, 2003.