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Some Indonesia Rape Photos on the Internet Are Frauds


JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Grisly pictures of Indonesian Chinese rape victims circulating over the Internet and published in major newspapers have stoked international outrage in the last two weeks. The problem: Some of the pictures are fake.

Indonesian human-rights groups fear these fakes could create a backlash in Indonesia and undermine an investigation into what they say were the systematic gang rapes of ethnic Chinese during riots in May. These groups allege that people in government and the military used racism to instigate the riots so they could clamp down on dissent against former President Suharto.

Indonesians are already skeptical about the rape allegations, and the fake pictures are likely to make them more so. Indonesian police chief Lt. Gen. Roesmanhadi threatened Monday to charge human-rights groups with disseminating false information if they cannot produce evidence to back their assertion that as many as 168 women were gang-raped.

Widespread publication of the fakes by activists on the Internet, meanwhile, "is confusing things and discrediting our investigation," said Sandyawan Sumardi, a Catholic priest and the leader of the Indonesian volunteer organization that first reported the accounts of rape. "If they continue, it'll become very dangerous for the Chinese community here."

To be sure, even new President B.J. Habibie concedes Chinese Indonesians were raped and beaten. Mobs looted and burned their houses during the worst three days of the riots, which forced Mr. Suharto to resign after three decades of autocratic rule. Angry about a sick economy and rising prices, the mobs targeted the Chinese minority, from the tycoons who control some of Indonesia's biggest corporations to shopkeepers. According to the government, 1,200 people died, most of them non-Chinese looters burned alive in shopping malls.

Reports of the rapes didn't surface until June but have spread rapidly, largely via a growing number of websites dedicated to highlighting the plight of Indonesian Chinese. Newspapers in Hong Kong and elsewhere ran the pictures, describing them as photos of rape victims.

That the pictures have been accepted so readily illustrates the growing power of computers and the Internet. At least some of the pictures circulating -- there are at least 15 -- were culled from an Asian pornography web site, a gruesome U.S.-based exhibition of gory photos, and an East Timorese exile homepage on the Internet.

Two pictures portray a woman being raped by two men; several show men in army fatigues abusing a naked woman with sticks, cigarette butts and ropes. The most gruesome shows a naked and bloody woman, apparently dead, violated with a broom handle.

Copies of two widely circulated pictures of a woman apparently being raped by two men turn up in a subscription-based pornographic Web site called "Sexy Asian Schoolgirls." The picture files are dated December, making it unlikely the pictures could be of events during the May riots in Jakarta, although it is remotely possible since dates on a computer can be faked. The host of the site wasn't available for comment.

Other photographs have a more complex pedigree. The pictures of men in uniform abusing a woman with sticks, cigarette butts and ropes belong to a batch of pictures that also purport to show the rape of East Timorese women by Indonesian soldiers. East Timorese groups overseas say the pictures were smuggled out in November and have nothing to do with the May riots. (The Indonesian government, and some independent observers, have also questioned these pictures' authenticity, saying they were staged to promote the aims of East Timorese separatists fighting for independence from Indonesia.)

"There's been a massive mix-up. I've been trying to find out who is circulating the photos. Someone is misusing them," said Judith Clarke of the East Timor International Support Centre in Darwin, Australia. Its Web site has carried the pictures since late last year and Ms. Clarke says the organization believes the pictures to be genuine evidence of Indonesian human-rights abuses -- but only in East Timor.

The gruesome picture of an apparently dead woman naked and covered in blood can be found at Gore Gallery, hosted by a 24-year-old resident of Houston, Texas named Michael Hames. Mr. Hames said the photograph had been in his possession for at least nine months and doesn't depict an Indonesian rape victim. "This picture has been floating around the U.S. for ages," he said. Ita Nadia, a women's rights worker who says she has interviewed some of the victims of the May riots, was quoted in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper as saying the picture is genuine. She declined to comment for this article.

The origin and content of other pictures are harder to verify. Two, posted on one site as "Bodies of raped Huaren [Chinese] women," apparently show two separate, badly burned women, but it's impossible to verify from the pictures whether the women have been raped or even if they are Chinese. "We are confident the pictures were taken in May in Jakarta and suggest rape, but we don't know the cases themselves and cannot confirm they're rape victims," says Tony Djohan of human-rights group Solidaritas Nusa -Bangsa, which carries the two pictures on its Web site but doesn't contend they portray rape victims.

Some Web site owners are aware that the pictures they carry are fake but said they published them in good faith. Some pictures were still on their Web sites Wednesday, and several site managers defended publishing them despite knowing they were not necessarily photographs of Indonesian Chinese victims of the May riots.

"Proving whether the photos are real or not is not the real issue," said Joe Tan of Wellington, New Zealand, who helped organize the World Huaren website. The real issue, he said, "is getting the Indonesian government to admit there is a problem and doing something about it."

Others aren't so sure. The host of another site, Indo Chaos, says he hasn't seen any genuine rape pictures and doesn't include any in his site. "Some lunatics have used the fake pictures to send a message that Chinese Indonesians are just making up the rape stories," he said.

Another site, "Indonesian Huaren Crisis Centre," has a gallery of pictures it says it has confirmed as false and asks visitors to point out any other pictures known to be fake. Pictures like these, the site says, could "reduce the integrity of our movement." It calls on readers to alert the center to any other fakes. But even this site carries one of the pictures from the pornographic site, calling it a genuine picture of a rape victim.

The attacks against Chinese are merely the latest in a centuries-old history of racial tension in Indonesia, a poor country that is one of the world's most populous. For centuries the Chinese have been resented by the pribumi, or indigenous Indonesians, for the preferential business arrangements afforded them by Dutch colonizers. Now 70% of the nation's biggest companies are controlled by the Chinese, who make up only 4% of the population. Many others are shopkeepers of modest means who were attacked when inflation drove up the cost of essentials such as rice, angering their pribumi customers.

In Indonesia's post-Suharto spirit of probing the misdeeds of the past, President Habibie has appointed a fact-finding team to look into allegations the riots were instigated by the military and the allegations of widespread gang rape. The rape pictures don't help "create the right atmosphere for an investigation," said the head of the fact-finding team, Marzuki Darusman. "It has the effect of amplifying the drama."

Mr. Darusman said his team has received copies of many of the pictures and is aware of questions about their authenticity. "We're not using the pictures as evidence," he said. There is enough first-hand evidence from the victims that the pictures won't be necessary, he said. The team is due to present to the president a preliminary report next month.

But fear of a backlash from the fake pictures grows, and some activists have urged Chinese in Hong Kong, China and elsewhere to tone down their protests at Indonesian embassies.

Father Sandyawan says he believes the fakes are yet another ploy by members of the Indonesian establishment to discredit the investigation. Two of the photographs mysteriously appeared at his office in an envelope months ago, he said, while the East Timorese photos have been sold in Jakarta's black market for months. Disseminating the fakes, he said, "is an act of terror" to sow even more fear amongst the nation's Chinese. "It's used to confuse the public," he added. "But we'll provide the real information."


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