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on the Disappearance 
and Murder of Jafar Siddiq Hamzah

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Demonstrators near United Nations, September 7. Photo by Charles Scheiner.

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Daily News (New York) 
May 7, 2001, Monday




Last August, Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, a Queens-based human-rights activist, disappeared in the middle of the afternoon from a busy street in the city of Medan in Indonesia.

A month later, villagers discovered Hamzah's mutilated body, along with four others, in a ravine outside the city limits. All five had been stripped, stabbed and wrapped in barbed wire.

Hamzah's supporters in New York and Indonesia believe paramilitary forces could be responsible for Hamzah's death.

To date, no one has been arrested in Hamzah's death, nor has anyone or any group taken responsibility.

To try to force the Indonesian government to come up with some answers, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Elmhurst), who was Hamzah's congressman in New York, has introduced a resolution as part of the State Department Authorization Act for fiscal years 2002 and 2003 demanding Hamzah's autopsy results. He also is seeking a comprehensive and open investigation into the slaying.

"What strikes me is that he lived in Woodside," Crowley said. "That's where I grew up. I never knew him, but I sympathize with his cause - not necessarily the revolutionary point of view, but his quest for a free society. I think that's something all Americans understand."

The International Relations Committee passed the resolution Wednesday and the entire Authorization Act is expected to go to the House floor as early as this week.

A native of Aceh - an Indonesian province on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra - Hamzah, 35, returned to Indonesia last summer to continue his work cataloguing human-rights abuses in Aceh.

Through his activism in Indonesia and his awareness efforts in the U.S., Hamzah helped draw international attention to atrocities - including murder, rape and torture - committed, or at least sanctioned, by the government against pro-independence Acehnese in the 1990s. Aceh is key to Indonesia's economy because of its abundance of oil and other natural resources.

Robert Jereski, executive director of the International Forum for Aceh, which Hamzah founded, said the legislation is "a gesture that means so much to Jafar's sister and to us, the people who knew him."

"Nothing is going to happen unless there's pressure on Indonesia, and this is official pressure," said John Miller, spokesman for the East Timor Action Network. "Obviously, it can mean more than [pressure from] everyday folk like us. We're happy to see official pressure."

Since Hamzah's death, two more human-rights workers have been found slain in southern Aceh, Jones said. And an additional 400 people, many of them civilians, have been killed in the last two months during clashes between the paramilitary and separatists.

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Daily News (New York) 
May 3, 2001


To shed light on last year's torture-slaying of Woodside-based human rights activist Jafar Siddiq Hamzah in Indonesia, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Elmhurst) has introduced a resolution calling on the Indonesian government to release Hamzah's autopsy results.

The resolution, part of the State Department Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2002 and 2003 (H.R. 1646), also calls on the Indonesian government to "conduct an open, transparent investigation into his death."

"It's a welcome and very moving tribute to Jafar," said Sidney Jones, Asia director for Manhattan-based Human Rights Watch, who was a friend of the devout Muslim lawyer and human rights worker.

Crowley's amendment went before the International Relations Committee yesterday. It is then expected to make it to the House floor in the next couple of weeks.

Hamzah formed the International Forum for Aceh in New York and helped direct worldwide attention to government atrocities against the Acehnese, many of whom sought independence from Indonesia. Hamzah was not in favor of the separatist movement but had sought a peaceful and democratic resolution in Aceh, his native province.

He disappeared Aug. 5 from a busy street in Medan, a city on the same island as Aceh. His badly mutilated body was found along with four others in a ravine about a month later.

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The Progressive [U.S.]
 April 2001

by Stephanie Brancaforte

Jafar Siddiq Hamzah enrolled as a graduate student at the New School for Social Research in New York in September 1999 to learn, according to his application, "what democracy is, at the theoretical level; what the benefit will be to the people by choosing democracy; about the government and the history of democracy itself."

As a lawyer for the Legal Aid Foundation in Medan, Indonesia, Hamzah had not received many opportunities to witness democracy in action in his homeland.

Hamzah was born in 1965 in the village of Blang Pulo in Aceh, a region on the northwest protrusion of the island of Sumatra.

For centuries, the independent sultanate of Aceh, endowed with vast natural resources, was known as the Gateway to Mecca. Colonized by the Dutch in 1873, Aceh helped Indonesia secure independence after World War II and was conditionally integrated into the new republic.

But the conditions, including the establishment of an Islamic state, were not honored, and the Acehnese rebelled.

In 1957, Indonesia sent in troops to quell the uprising. Unable to prevail with military force alone, Indonesia made Aceh a separate province and in 1959 granted it "special region" status with greater autonomy.

In 1971, when Hamzah was six years old, he saw security forces cart his father off to prison for his refusal to join Golkar, the Indonesian government's political party. He never saw his father again.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the political situation deteriorated as the military repression in Aceh grew worse. In 1989, under the pretext of attacks by the Free Aceh Movement (or GAM), Indonesian security forces launched a counterinsurgency effort. They have killed thousands and have engaged in widespread torture and rape. So far, more than 200 people have died in the first part of 2001 alone.

Hamzah's peace advocacy in Aceh kept pace with the violence. At Legal Aid in Medan, Indonesia's second largest city, he began documenting human rights abuses, and he defended GAM fighters when they were brought to court. In 1996, when six captured GAM members burned to death in their cells, the military claimed the prisoners themselves were responsible. It was Hamzah who challenged this account. Within two days, the military torched his office. Security forces accused him of being a member of the Free Aceh Movement and threatened him and his family.

Hamzah fled with his wife, a political scientist, to New York via Malaysia in 1996.

In 1998, Hamzah founded the International Forum for Aceh (IFA) "to bring the Aceh case to international attention and to gain international solidarity and support for the people of Aceh in their struggle for peace and justice in their homeland," according to IFA's documents of incorporation. He also helped to establish the Support Committee for Human Rights in Aceh, and he even managed to testify before a Congressional subcommittee in 1999.

"Aceh is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped provinces in Indonesia, with a very high number of people living below the poverty level," Hamzah stated. "What Aceh contributes to the central government in terms of oil, natural gas, and other resources and what the Acehnese people receive in return is profoundly unequal."

In the summer of 2000, he returned to Aceh to publish an English-Acehnese newspaper and to establish an Acehnese branch of IFA. Despite the fact that his cousin had been killed in Aceh only three months earlier, Hamzah continued to document corporate complicity in systematic human rights violations. He looked into the operations of Mobil Oil (now merged into ExxonMobil), one of the largest investors in Aceh.

Hamzah received death threats for poking around this story. He disregarded most of them but shared his concerns with his wife and other IFA members.

The gas facility in Aceh, jointly owned by ExxonMobil and the Indonesian government company Pertamina, "produced nearly a quarter of Mobil's global revenue" in the early 1990s, according to an article by Jay Solomon in The Wall Street Journal last September. One corporate vice president called it "the jewel in the company's crown."

But the jewel was a tarnished one, according to many Acehnese.

"Mobil's contract obliges it to rely on the Indonesian military for on-site security, the same military that has been implicated in a string of high-profile human rights abuses," the article noted. "Some villagers claim they were physically abused by soldiers assigned to Mobil duty." One villager told Solomon that he and seven other men were "tortured with electric shock," and he lifted his shirt to show the scars.

For its part, the company told The Wall Street Journal that it wasn't aware of any troops assigned to Mobil being involved in harassment or torture. And ExxonMobil gave a statement to The Progressive saying that its presence in Aceh "has been a stabilizing factor in the region."

The company statement, released in January, added: "We have always been sensitive to the needs of our employees, the local residents, and the government."

Because of his investigations and his human rights activities, Hamzah suspected he was being followed. He had taken to calling home every two hours to check in for safety reasons. On August 5, he was abducted in broad daylight from a busy street in Medan. Vendors and motorists thronged in the streets, yet no one seems to recall his abduction. His colleagues at IFA, the New School, and the East Timor Action Network lobbied ceaselessly for an investigation and his release. The State Department issued a statement, and the Jakarta newspapers followed the story carefully.

On September 3, Hamzah's tortured, mutilated, and decomposing body was discovered fifty-two miles from Medan, in a stretch of land often desecrated by the blood of murdered Acehnese. Four other corpses were found in the same area. The complicity of the Indonesian security forces seems beyond doubt.

"For those of us who knew him," said Robert Kostrzewa, assistant dean of academic affairs and scholarships at the New School, "Hamzah was truly one of the gentlest of human beings, but passionate and firm in his convictions. Hamzah is now a martyr. It is our responsibility to remember that he lost his life for what we hold to be one of our inalienable rights."

Outraged at this peace worker's death, thousands held pray-ins outside the police headquarters in the capital city of Banda Aceh and staged protests in Medan demanding that an investigation be conducted in earnest.

More than six months later, while expressions of sympathy have abounded, there has been no progress in the investigation. This inaction is indicative of the Indonesian government's unwillingness to put serious pressure on the military. While the beleaguered President Wahid (a.k.a. Gus Dur) periodically denounces the extrajudicial killings in Aceh and other provinces as barbarous, he also reiterates his unflagging support for Indonesian territorial integrity--integrity which the military is authorized to ensure by whatever means.

There has been no credible investigation or prosecution of any high-level official involved in human rights abuses. A perilous culture of impunity reinforces the military's brutal repressions.

Hamzah's murder coincided with the killing of three U.N. workers on the border of East and West Timor. In the last several months, there has been an escalation of violence, in Aceh and around the archipelago, and the Indonesian military has stepped up its attacks on human rights activists and pro-democracy advocates. Dr. Safwan Idris, a renowned intellectual and potential candidate for governor of Aceh, was murdered at his home soon after Hamzah's death.

"The Indonesian government is allowing its security forces to target humanitarian workers in Aceh, just as it allowed militias to target such workers in West Timor," Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch remarked in a joint statement on December 8, 2000.

The U.S. embassy in Jakarta raised Hamzah's case with the Indonesian government, but the Clinton Administration did not go public with any criticism. "It would have been nice to see [then-Secretary of State Madeleine] Albright herself raise the issue publicly," says John Miller of the East Timor Action Network. But Miller recognizes that the Indonesian government does not have full sway over the military. "Raising issues with the government of Indonesia doesn't necessarily translate into action on the ground."

Though the Clinton Administration had already placed restrictions on U.S. military ties with Indonesia, Washington remains a firm backer of the Indonesian government. The United States has long adhered to a policy of supporting the territorial integrity of Indonesia, which is not good news for those who seek independence for Aceh or even a reduced military presence. At the height of the Indonesian military's operations in Aceh in the late 1980s, there were 12,000 troops stationed there. Now there are 70,000. Eight hundred civilians were killed in Aceh last year, most of them by the military.

Now with the Bush Administration in power, there may be even less pressure on the Indonesian military. "The new Administration raises a lot of questions from our perspective," Miller says. Secretary of State Colin Powell "has never shown any commitment to linking arms sales to human rights requirements." In fact, Miller says, Powell has argued against cutting off arms sales.

Miller says the United States has the clout, however, to influence the military's stance on human rights. "The Indonesian military is dependent on U.S. spare parts and ammunition for its operations," he says, "so the U.S. is in a good position to make clear statements about what it expects from the Indonesian military in terms of human rights."

But the U.S. government is not likely to make such statements without mass pressure. "Unless the international community changes its tactics, we're going to see more bloodbaths in Aceh," says Noam Chomsky.

Robert Jereski, who took the reins of IFA after Hamzah's death, places some of the blame on consumers: "I think the international community must first become aware of the ties between the Indonesian armed forces, which are committing atrocities, and the cheap oil, timber, gas, computers, and sneakers which consumers in so-called developed countries enjoy," he says. "The Indonesian military supports its operations through various legal and illegal means. Seventy-five percent of its budget comes from these business ventures. We in the developed world must recognize the real expense of such cheap goods in terms of human suffering."

On November 10 and 11, half a million people, more than 10 percent of the region's total population, rallied in Banda Aceh to demand a referendum to determine their future political status, notwithstanding the Indonesian military's intimidation tactics. While the international eye was focused on the American Presidential elections and the Middle East crisis, fifty-two people in Aceh were confirmed murdered by the military; local human rights groups estimate that the death toll from November 8 to November 11 surpassed 200.

Even ExxonMobil says it's concerned about the violence. "It is to everyone's interest to resolve differences peacefully so that Indonesia might use its rich base of natural and human resources for the benefit of its people," the company said in its January statement.

Ironically, that's the cause Hamzah gave his life for. "We've been told that in small, remote villages, one will find 'IFA' written on the walls of houses," says Jereski. "That is why the professional hit on Hamzah was at once such a devastating blow to the Acehnese and a rallying cry to carry on his work."

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Protest letter to Jane's Intelligence Review

Re. [Jane's] Articles on Aceh and GAM Jane's Intelligence Review, April 1, 2001 Vol. 13; No. 4

April 13, 2001

Dear Sir,

I read with consternation a paragraph concerning my organization in the above-cited piece. The objectionable paragraph reads: "GAM operates in the USA under the banner of the Aceh Sumatra National Liberation Front (ASNLF) and as the International Forum for Aceh (IFA) in New York. On a visit to Banda Aceh, its founder head Jafar Siddiq Hamzah was kidnapped and killed in North Sumatra in 2000. Prior to arriving in the USA, he functioned in Medan, North Sumatra, as a lawyer defending those arrested and on trial. He established the Aceh Forum of New York, which became the current IFA after a conference. Through the IFA, GAM formed good contacts with Amnesty International, Asia Watch, Human Rights Watch and several other human rights organisations in North America."

Such a devastating statement is given in passing as though it were a matter of well-established fact. It is indeed unbelievable that such a highly esteemed publication as yours would disseminate such a statement. Such irresponsible and unethical reporting might be expected in publications, such as we now see appearing (in large numbers) in Jakarta, some upstart revues battling for survival by sensationalism or those publications financed by the Indonesian military propaganda machine.

Your "intelligence" report reveals a severe shortcoming of the most basic research required of journalists. There was clearly no checking into the background of the IFA as a New York based non-profit organization, the members of its Board of Directors, its well publicized activities, meetings, seminars... You failed even to approach any officials of the IFA to comment on such a seriously malicious allegation that your reporter has made.

You unfortunately were not aware of the lethal dangers which attend such false statements. I would like to inform you that in the last twelve years thousands civilians have been murdered in Aceh the vast majority by the Indonesian armed forces - murders later rationalized by the police and military, with claims that the civilians were GAM-sympathizers. Identifying a person in Aceh as pro-GAM, let alone assigning him/her such a straight-forward role as being part of GAM's operational structure, is tantamount to giving him/her a death sentence.

The author's statement that the murdering of civilians is conducted by the Indonesian armed forces and, with the exception of informants, not by the GAM, is troubling. The author seems to imply that the targeting of civilians, when they are informants (or considered informants), is somehow an acceptable cost of insurgent activity. It is not. Extrajudicial (or summary) executions violate Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

Second, your author implies that the GAM has committed no other human rights abuses. I cannot verify this claim. Besides credible reports of extrajudicial executions discussed above, we have been informed that the GAM (or possibly people posing as GAM) have committed extortion against civilians. If the author has evidence either confirming or refuting these well-known allegations against GAM, we would appreciate that they share it with us.

Your writer seems to conclude that the fact that our murdered chairman, Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, "functioned in Medan, North Sumatra, as a lawyer defending those arrested and on trial" as adding credence to the allegation. With such understanding, I suppose he would likewise agree to branding all lawyers who defend known criminals as criminals themselves. Your writer states that "through the IFA, GAM formed good contacts with Amnesty International, Asia Watch, Human Rights Watch". May I direct your writer to the websites of these organizations. I hope that he will recognize the obvious fact evident there that during the last twelve years, Amnesty International and Asia Watch have published numerous reports on Aceh and have established contacts with GAM more that a decade before IFA was even formed? It is an insult to these world-renown human rights organizations to suggest that such an alleged cover could have fooled them.

You have exposed to grave danger not only our staff and theirs, but all humanitarian workers, who are currently in Aceh and who are carrying out much needed relief activities and documentation work under constant threat of being 'identified' as GAM.

We request an immediate retraction of your reckless statements regarding our organization and an immediate clarification of our organization's true commitments. We hope that this will undo some of the damage your intelligence report has caused.

Furthermore, the author's statement that the murdering of civilians is conducted by the Indonesian armed forces and, with the exception of informants, not by the GAM, is troubling. The author seems to imply that the targeting of civilians, when they are informants (or considered informants), is somehow an acceptable cost of insurgent activity. It is not. Extrajudicial (or summary) executions violate Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

Second, your author implies that the GAM has committed no other human rights abuses. I cannot verify this claim. Besides credible reports of extrajudicial executions discussed above, we have been informed that the GAM (or possibly people posing as GAM) have committed extortion against civilians. If the author has evidence either confirming or refuting these well-known allegations against GAM, we would appreciate that they share it with us.

Finally, may I inform you, too, that Asia Watch has been known for a number of years as Human Rights Watch/Asia Division.


Press and Communications Director 
International Forum for Aceh

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Ambassador Gelbard: Government should embrace the people
Summary of a report in Serambi Indonesia, 5 April 2001

Speaking as a friend (of Indonesia), US ambassador Robert Gelbard told a press conference in Banda Aceh that the Indonesian government should resolve the Aceh question by dialogue, by embracing the people of Aceh and not by alienating them.

If the Indonesian government wants Aceh to remain a part of Indonesia, it should do everything to win their confidence.

Only recently the US embassy issued a statement expressing disappointment at the killing of Tgk Al Kamal, a member of the joint monitoring team, his lawyer Suprin Sulaiman who was receiving support from USAID, and their driver. Besides expressing condolences for the bereaved families, the embassy deeply regretted that people who were working for peace had been brutally slain.

The ambassador said that such things should stop. He regretted the fact that four suspects in the case of the RATA killings had escaped from prison. And until now, his embassy had received no answer to their concern at the killing of Jafar Siddiq Hamzah. 'These are just a few examples of the violence in this part of Indonesia,' the ambassador said.

He said the US strongly supports dialogue and a peaceful approach. The core of the problem in Aceh, he said, was the question of justice. It is difficult to understand that in a country run as a democracy, the law was functioning like this.

He was convinced, he said, that the violence used by GAM and by the government will have a negative impact on the people. This would only alienate the people from the Indonesian government. He said there were some people in the government who favour a peaceful solution in Aceh while others favour the security approach. The US has been approached by the government to give various kinds of assistance, for instance, in the health sector, while others were trying to impede such assistance.

It was regrettable, he said, that ExxonMobil had suspended operations.

He expressed respect for the Henri Dunant Centre for everything it has done to promote peace and hoped that everyone would work with the Centre to achieve this objective. Asked about a US vessel that was recently seen in the vicinity of Sabang, he said the ship was sailing in international waters and asked reporters not to blow up this issue.

He expressed the conviction that the police could play an important role in the community in Aceh and it was important to build a police force imbued with democratic thoughts and close to the people. The US was already involved in training for the Indonesian police force, in police academies in Ciputat, Semarang and Surabaya, in subjects related to democracy. Other areas in which training was taking place included dealing with explosions, conducting (criminal) investigations and handling conflicts, as well as dealing with drugs.

Asked about Exxon, he said his government wanted to see the company resume operations as soon as possible. The company had taken the decision to suspend operations, out of consideration for the safety of its personnel.

While the press conference was underway, dozens of people from SIRA and other organisations were outside demonstrating, with banners calling on the US and the international community to pay close attention to the situation in Aceh.

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World Policy Journal, [quarterly foreign policy journal, New School University, New York City, US], Winter 2000/01

In Memoriam: Jafar Siddiq Hamzah
By Luke Z. Fenchel

In a sad footnote to the recent news from Indonesia, a human rights advocate who tried to bring together the opposing sides in a secessionist conflict has instead fallen victim to the violence he sought to ameliorate. Jafar Siddiq Hamzah was one of more than 500 persons killed this past year as a result of the conflict in Aceh, and his name has been added to the growing list of civilian activists throughout the world who have lost their lives in the pursuit of the peaceful end to violent conflict. The 34-year-old human rights lawyer's body was found along with four other unidentified bodies on September 2, 2000, at the bottom of cliff not far from Medan, the largest city on the island of Sumatra, of which Aceh forms a part. Jafar's limbs were bound by wire and his body bore signs of torture. He had been missing for nearly a month, having vanished one afternoon from the streets of Medan, where he had been engaged in his human rights work. He was also a member of our New School University community.

Aceh (pronounced ah-chay) became an autonomous province of the newly independent Republic of Indonesia in 1949. The Acehnese chafed under Jakarta's rule, however, and open rebellion in the early 1950s was followed by decades of intermittent separatist violence. Many of the human rights abuses Jafar fought began in 1989, when the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM) emerged from a period of dormancy to conduct attacks on the Indonesian police and military. GAM originated in the mid-1970s; the group's grievances arose from political, religious, and economic factors, not least from the fact that although Aceh, with its oil and mineral resources, accounted for a sizeable portion of Indonesia's GDP, the Acehnese saw only a small portion of the revenues generated by these resources.

In the early 1990s, President Suharto tried to suppress GAM by means of iron-fisted intimidation tactics, and thousands of Acehnese were illegally detained and tortured, or murdered by the military and the police. According to Amnesty International (in "Shock Therapy: Restoring Order in Aceh, 1989-1993"), during this period the government was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 2,000 civilians and for the arbitrary detention of at least 1,000 others: "Anyone suspected of contact with Aceh Merdeka was vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, `disappearance' or summary execution." The government's repressive tactics resulted in a tactical retreat by GAM for a few years; when the separatist movement reemerged, it turned its wrath against those among the civilian population it accused of being government informers.

In 1998, following Suharto's resignation as president, the Acehnese pressed the new government to investigate the human rights abuses that had taken place under the Suharto regime. But Suharto's immediate successor, B. J. Habibie, and Indonesia's current president, Abdurrahman Wahid, showed little inclination to investigate the powerful military or the police. The result has been renewed violence in Aceh and continuing human rights abuses for which both the military and GAM are responsible, although it is generally agreed that the military bears the heavier responsibility.

Jafar graduated from a state training academy for Muslim religious teachers in North Aceh in 1983 and received his law degree in 1989 from Medan's Amir Hamzah University. He went to work as a staff lawyer for the Legal Aid Institute (Indonesia's largest human rights organization) in Medan and in this capacity served as a guide and interpreter for foreign journalists covering the military's heavy-handed reprisals against Acehnese villages suspected of harboring separatist guerrillas. In 1991, he attended the University of Colorado on a fellowship to study environmental law. Returning to Indonesia, he worked at the Legal Aid Institute for another three years before moving to the Woodside neighborhood of Queens (where there is a large Acehnese community) in 1996. In 1998, he enrolled in the political science department of the Graduate Faculty of New School University.

Once established in New York, Jafar, who was a proponent of peaceful mediation to resolve conflicts, founded the Forum on Aceh. The forum sponsored a conference at New York University in December 1998. Among the participants was a journalist who subsequently wrote an article for the Indonesian newspaper Serambi Indonesia falsely accusing Jafar of being linked to GAM, an accusation that may ultimately have proved fatal. In the summer of 1999, Jafar organized a conference in Bangkok that resulted in one of the first meetings between the Indonesian government and GAM, and paved the way for a "humanitarian truce" agreed to by the Wahid government and GAM later in the year.

Last June, Jafar returned to Aceh to open the local office of the International Forum on Aceh, the mediation and advocacy organization he had founded. He also intended to set up offices for the English-Acehnese newspaper Su Aceh. Unfortunately, the humanitarian truce had failed to halt the violence in Aceh, and barely three months after returning to Indonesia, Jafar was dead, mourned by those who admired his commitment to human rights and his activism in pursuit of an end to sectarian violence in his native country.

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