Journalist’s trial in Indonesia to begin Wednesday |

Journalist’s trial in Indonesia to begin Wednesday

William Nessen, a freelance journalist and the son of an Aspen couple, is scheduled to go on trial in Indonesia Wednesday, a month after he was arrested as a suspected spy for separatists is the island nation’s province of Aceh.

Nessen, 46, turned himself in to Indonesian authorities on June 24, after they refused to guarantee him safe passage out of the war-torn province. He was reportedly covering the conflict for two American newspapers, following rebel troops with the Free Aceh Movement through the jungles as they fought the Indonesian army, which took the offensive in May.

Nessen faces charges on two alleged violations of the nation’s immigration laws; if convicted he could be sent to prison for up to five years, according to a report in the online edition of The Jakarta Post.

One charge relates to the paperwork he had filled out identifying his employer when applying for a visa. Indonesian authorities, according to his mother, Hermine Nessen, maintain that he misrepresented himself as a freelancer for The San Francisco Chronicle, when in fact he was working for several papers; the other has to do with a special permit that he was supposed to acquire before entering the war zone.

Following his arrest, Hermine traveled to Banda, the capital of Aceh, to see that her son was being treated fairly. She said he’s been housed in a spare office in the city’s police station, luxurious accommodations by any standard of incarceration. And, more critically, because of pressure from the family and the American government, he’s been allowed to have an attorney present during all questioning.

“Had the trial been more imminent when I was there, I would have stayed,” said Hermine, who has lived in Aspen’s West End with her husband, Maurice, since 1989. “But I assured myself that he was being treated well.”

She added that the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia and the office of Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar have both been extremely helpful in ensuring Billy, as he’s called by friends and family, is treated well.

“The embassy has gone all out in Jakarta,” Hermine said. “The ambassador has been very responsive. He calls us and tells us what’s happening.”

Hermine said her son’s visa paperwork is in order, and his attorney is ready to prove it. And as for the special permit, it was not a requirement when Nessen began working in Aceh, so he never had the opportunity to acquire it.

“There’s no reason for him to be in jail,” said Maria Trombly, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ international journalism committee. Trombly called Nessen’s arrest “an obscene violation” of the basic protections offered to journalists in most countries.

She said that even though the SPJ is a domestic organization, it can and does ramp up the pressure when American journalists get into trouble overseas.

“This isn’t as much legal support as it is moral support and organizational pressure to get the situation resolved,” Trombly said.

Both she and Hermine credit local photojournalist Sallie Shatz for making Nessen’s case a priority with the Society of Professional Journalists and, to a lesser extent, within the U.S. media. Shatz pushed the SPJ into action.

The SPJ is orchestrating a letter-writing campaign aimed at keeping the issue in front of Sen. Lugar; Ralph “Skip” Boyce, the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia; and the Indonesian government. Trombly said people are free to join in the effort by logging on to

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is]

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