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Jakarta Post

Liesbeth Zegveld: The lawyer behind the Dutch apologies

  • Linawati Sidarto

    The Jakarta Post

The Netherlands   /   Fri, September 13, 2013   /  12:36 pm
Liesbeth Zegveld: The lawyer behind the Dutch apologies (Courtesy of Wouter Boswinkel)

(Courtesy of Wouter Boswinkel)

Six decades after the fact, the Netherlands will apologize for war crimes committed by its army during Indonesia'€™s Independence War. The apology is a direct result of two landmark lawsuits won by a Dutch woman, lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld.

Zegveld, a professor of international humanitarian law at Leiden University, recalls the tense moments right before The Hague court issued its verdict on the Rawagede case two years ago. '€œUntil the very last minute, I didn'€™t think we would win.'€

But win they did,marking the first time Indonesians received compensation for war crimes committed by the Dutch army during the armed conflict between the countries.

Zegveld represented a survivor and eight widows from Rawagede, the small village in West Java where Dutch soldiers executed more than 400 men and boys in December 1947. The civil suit resulted in an apology and ¤20,000 compensation for each plaintiff.

Last month, she scored another victory for the widows of 10 men executed by the Dutch in South Sulawesi in 1947. Later that month, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that the government would apologize for all summary executions committed by the Dutch military in Indonesia from 1945 to 1949, claiming that future claims would be resolved in a similar manner.

While Indonesia proclaimed independence from its former colonizer days after the end of World War II, it took four years of diplomatic wrangling and armed conflict before the Netherlands officially recognized the Republic of Indonesia. Some 150,000 Indonesians '€” civilians and soldiers '€” perished during that period, while 5,000 Dutch soldiers died.

Zegveld, now 43, had neither personal nor professional ties with Indonesia until Jeffry Pondaag of the Committee for Dutch Honor Debts Foundation (KUKB) came to her with the Rawagede dossier in 2006. Since the 1980s, Pondaag had been considering holding the Dutch responsible for war crimes in Indonesia.

'€œGreat case, but utterly hopeless,'€ was Zegveld'€™s first impression. '€œLuckily, Jeffry didn'€™t give up, and insisted that I gave the case a chance.'€

Pondaag chose wisely: Zegveld'€™s dissertation, Accountability of Armed Opposition Groups in International Law, received several awards after it was published in 2000.

In 2008, Zegveld wrote to the Dutch government about plans to file a lawsuit in a letter that was picked up by the Dutch media. '€œThe strong public reaction took us by surprise. Some people couldn'€™t believe how it was possible that such atrocities had not been taken to court yet.'€

Delving deeper, she realized that the Netherlands, a proponent of international human rights, had been reserved when it came to that part of the nation'€™s history. '€œThe Dutch still find it difficult to look back at that period. It remains highly sensitive, mainly because they know that they handled it incorrectly in Indonesia.'€

She then started fighting an uphil battle: while the Dutch state admitted that the events in Rawagede were '€œwar crimes'€, the offenses had run afoul of the statute of limitation. '€œMost of my fellow lawyers thought I was crazy to continue with a case they deemed unwinnable.'€

Zegveld then countered the state'€™s argument, pointing out that the Netherlands continued to hear cases and award compensation to Holocaust survivors from World War II. '€œThese cases go further back compared to Rawagede, so how come no statute of limitation is put upon them?'€

On the key to her Rawagede triumph, the second generation lawyer is phlegmatic. '€œWe had a solid legal case. The facts of the massacre were clear and undisputed, and the court could no longer hide behind the statute of limitations argument.'€

'€œWe were also lucky that the presiding judges were all relatively young: they were in their early 40s. That generation no longer carries the emotional post-colonial burden, and were able to purely look at the facts presented to the court.'€

The Rawagede verdict in September 2011 was world news, and has set a precedent for similar cases elsewhere. When victims of the independence war in Kenya filed a suit against the British state, they used the Rawagede case as an example, Zegveld points out.

Zegveld herself played a big role in winning the cases. '€œWhen Liesbeth sinks her teeth into something, she doesn'€™t let go,'€ Pondaag says. '€œShe just can'€™t stand injustice.'€

In her 13 years of practicing law, the mother of two has handled numerous controversial human rights cases. NRC, the country'€™s most prominent daily, wrote that '€œamong the 17,000 lawyers in the Netherlands, Liesbeth Zegveld undisputedly holds the most exotic portfolio'€ with clients including victims of wars in Afghanistan, Argentina and the former Yugoslavia.

Her fellow lawyers admire Zegveld'€™s combination of compassion and legal brilliance. '€œShe brings her arguments without excessive indignation and with an underlying authority in her voice. The woman can fill a room with her presence when she'€™s pleading her case,'€ prominent Dutch lawyer Rieme-Jan Tjittes describes Zegveld in the Volkskrant daily.

While Zegveld is '€œvery happy'€ about the Dutch plan to apologize for the summary executions on Sept. 12, her euphoria is somewhat dampened by the fact that the widows are too old to travel from South Sulawesi to Jakarta. Dutch ambassador Tjeerd de Zwaan will relay his country'€™s apology in a ceremony in Jakarta, not in South Sulawesi.

Zegveld and the KUKB have also watched with trepidation as the compensation paid out to the victims evaporated in the pockets of others. The Rawagede widows were forced to give half of their money to the '€œlocal village community'€.

'€œWe have actually filed a lawsuit in an Indonesian court against those who took the widows'€™ money. But so far we haven'€™t heard anything,'€ Zegveld lamented.

In the meantime, Zegveld and Pondaag'€™s KUKB are already preparing their next lawsuits, which include demanding compensation for the children of the victims of war crimes.

Ironically, the Indonesian government has not exactly been forthcoming in its reaction to the lawsuits and the subsequent apologies. When Ambassador de Zwaan went to Rawagede in December 2011 to apologize for the massacres, Zegveld was '€œbaffled'€ that no senior government official from Jakarta was present.

'€œFor the past three months, we have tried to make an appointment with Indonesian Ambassador to the Netherlands Retno Marsudi in The Hague, but until now she'€™s been too busy to speak with us.'€

Critics in Jakarta say that the government might not want to draw attention to its own human rights problems in the past decades in places like Timor Leste, Aceh and Papua, and the killing spree following the failed coup blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965.

Sebastiaan Pompe, a legal expert on Indonesia, says it is '€œexcellent that these cases are brought forward, and that the Dutch state can be held responsible by its courts.'€ He points out that it took the Netherlands decades '€œto confront itself in the Rawagede case'€, and that '€œpolitical and institutional maturity was needed to admit to crimes during that period.'€

'€œThe next question is: When will Indonesia be able to confront itself?'€

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