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Meet the Journalist Who Crushes War Criminals

I spoke to Allan Nairn about confronting mass murderers and ruining their political careers.

by Max Metzger
01 August 2014, 5:00am

Allan Nairn (Screen grab via)

Like many great journalist-activists, you probably haven’t heard of Allan Nairn. But fame was never his ambition; instead, he's spent the past few decades doing his bit to affect legitimate change in situations that have needed it most.

His speciality being US-backed atrocities, Nairn has reported from the charnel houses of Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala and Indonesia. He's openly challenged Henry Kissinger; helped bring American proxies to trial; exposed the US-training of death squads in El Salvador and Haiti; and in Guatemala he filmed what later turned out to be the country's current president casually talking about his role in the 1980s highland genocide. Often, the irony is that those he exposes can’t kill or torture Nairn because he's a US citizen, which would put their American aid at risk. With the insurance that comes along with his a blue passport, he's goaded Washington-approved jackboots and the suits that approve them.

Allan is most famous for his reporting on Indonesia. In 1991, while reporting on genocide in East Timor – which was occupied by Indonesia at the time – he survived the Dili Massacre in Santa Cruz. The Indonesian army, then waging a campaign of mass-murder, approached a funeral. Hoping that his press status would prevent bloodshed, Nairn got in between the army and the funeral-goers. He was then beaten while the army killed 271 civilians. He later helped to found ETAN, an organisation that helped to stop the US funding of Indonesia’s military-government, which, as it turned out, had been entirely propping up President Suharto’s dictatorship. 

He recently published a 2001 interview with former-General Prabowo Subianto, the son-in-law of Suharto, Washington’s “fair haired boy” and one of two presidential candidates who ran in Indonesia’s recent election. The interview contained some particularly compelling lines, including Prabowo’s annoyance with the army for massacring civilians in front of the press, and questioning whether he could live up to the apparently noble watermark of Musharraf’s dictatorship in Pakistan.

I interviewed Allan on the 9th of July, the day of the Indonesian elections. We spoke about confronting mass-murderers, and I asked him why he decided to publish that interview with Prabowo.

Prabawo Subianto (Image via)

VICE: You published an interview you did with Prabowo in 2001 last month. Why now?
Allan Nairn: He was on the verge of becoming president and he'd said things to me that I thought might be of great interest to people in Indonesia. I felt I had a responsibility to bring that out for their consideration. I'd spoken to Prabowo off the record, so at first it was a very difficult – but a very important – decision to break my off the record promise to him. But in the end, the more I thought about it, the more I realised I had to do it because I would do harm either way if I kept it or if I brought it out. I decided that the greater harm was to suppress that information.

The TNI (Indonesian armed forces) later threatened youdid they not?
Yeah. They said a lot of things. They said I was an enemy of the nation and they reported – and I think this is accurate – that I had been previously captured seven times by the TNI for entering the country illegally. This is because I'd originally been banned as a threat to national security under the Suharto regime. They seemed to be calling for the TNI to capture me, and it was reported in the press that I had become a TNI operational target.

You get threatened quite a lot – how do you deal with that?
I’m very safe because I’m an outsider, and on top of that I’m an American citizen. So I come from the same country that the army’s weapons come from, and, you know, that just gives me lots of leeway in terms of safety. I try to use that privilege as much as I can to say things that might otherwise get me killed. So, in a way, I’m kind of a conduit.

Now, quite a few friends of mine have been murdered – Munir, who is a legendary figure in Indonesia, a human rights hero. He was the leading person who spoke out against crimes by the military and police; he’s also a brilliant man, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He was [allegedly] assassinated on a plane when military intelligence put a massive dose of arsenic into his food and he vomited to death.

Another friend of mine, Jafar Siddiq-Hamzah, from Aceh, was emerging as the voice of the civilian political movement for freedom in Aceh. In mid-2001, Jafar disappeared. I was in the US at the time so I came over to look for him. A month later his body turned up at the bottom of a ravine along with four other bodies – they all had their hands tied behind their back and they were mutilated beyond recognition. Neither I nor the family could recognise Jafar from his face, because most it had been sliced off. You could see multiple stab wounds around the chest. He was able to be identified because of surgery he had on his stomach.

Because of their heroism – and [the heroism of] thousands of other people like them – there has been a lot of progress in recent decades, so there’s a fair amount of free speech now. But someone like me? An outsider? It’s not that much.

Uprisings that toppled Suharto (Photo via)

You say that, but you’ve had quite a large impact on mitigating the effects of the military government.
In 1990 I went to then-occupied East Timor. Timor was actually the scene of the most intensive proportional genocide since the Nazis. A third of the Timorese population was killed, or died of hunger and disease. The military invaded Timor with a personal green-light from President Ford and Henry Kissinger. When I first went there in 1990 it was still under military occupation. That was actually the worst, most intense terror I have seen anywhere in the world. Guatemala in 1980 approaches it, but nothing close to what was going in Timor at the time.

I later went back there in November of 1991, and that’s when the Dili massacre happened at the Santa Cruz cemetery. Anyway, after that I got involved in helping to launch a grassroots network in the US – the East Timor Action Network (ETAN). It took from 1991 to 1999, and we succeeded in, temporarily, cutting off nearly all of the US military aid in Indonesia through a very intense lobbying campaign and years of political fighting. That had a pretty big effect, because, according to Admiral Sudomo – who was Suharto’s former security chief – those successive US aid cut-offs tied the hands of the Suharto regime when, in 97 and 98, people and even students took to the streets in an uprising against Suharto.

A reenactment of the Santa Cruz Massacre, which Allan survived. (Photo via)

You interview a lot of people who should probably see you as their enemy. How do you get them to speak to you?
The situations vary each time. But a lot of these military people involved in these atrocities have never been approached, so that can lead to things. In some cases they do see me as an enemy, but for various reasons they might want to talk – maybe they want to express their anger, maybe they want to send a message of a sort, or maybe they want to put out information on one of their enemies. In the case of Prabowo, I think he partly enjoyed sitting down with someone who was very much an adversary.

Is it a disturbing experience?
It always is. It’s always hard to have to deal with mass murderers. With Prabowo, I was deciding whether to do it or not, but then I thought, ‘Well, sitting down with this man might help solve the murders I was looking into.’

The best approach is to take a different road, one that’s actually easier. An example of that would be my meeting with General Gramajo. He was one of the top commanders of the 1982 massacres [in Guatemala] and was the US favourite to be president of Guatemala, so the US brought him to Harvard to get a Masters in public administration. While he was there at Harvard I tried to bring a lawsuit against him under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which was originally written to fight pirates. It means that perpetrators can be tried in any country for crimes they did elsewhere.

We served him the papers at his Harvard graduation. He fled the country and he was convicted. It was not a criminal case, unfortunately, but he was ordered to pay something like $13 million (£7.7 million). This did end up destroying him politically. At one point, a debate was organised at Brown University for 60 Minutes, who were going to film it, and beforehand he came up to me and put his hand out. I refused to take his hand. I said to him, "I don’t want to shake hands with a common criminal."

That must have been pretty satisfying.
Yeah, that seemed to be the most constructive path. But with Gramajo, because it was public, I didn’t want to create the illusion of amicability. You take different approaches at different points. [Gramajo was later killed by a swarm of killer bees. True story]

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