The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) condemns the Obama administration’s decision to resume engagement with Indonesia’s notorious Kopassus special forces.
“Slipping back into bed with Kopassus is a betrayal of the brutal unit’s many victims in Timor-Leste, West Papua and throughout Indonesia. It will lead to more people to suffer abuses,” said John M. Miller, National Coordinator of ETAN. “Working with Kopassus, which remain unrepentant about its long history of terrorizing civilians, will undermine efforts to achieve justice and accountability for human rights crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste (East Timor).”
“For years, the U.S. military provided training and other assistance to Kopassus, and when the U.S. was most involved Kopassus crimes were at their worst. While this assistance improved the Indonesian military’s deadly skills, it did nothing to improve its behavior,” Miller added.
“Engagement with Kopassus would violate the Leahy Law, which prohibits military assistance to units with unresolved human rights violations,” said Miller. “Even the previous Bush State Department’s legal counsel thought so, ruling that the Leahy prohibition applied to Kopassus as a whole.”
U.S. officials, speaking to the New York Times, distinguished between soldiers who were “only implicated, not convicted’ in human rights crimes. Administration officials have said that some Kopassus soldiers convicted of crimes no longer served with the unit, however many of them remain on active duty, including Lt. Col. Tri Hartomo, convicted by a military court of the murder of Papuan leader Theys Eluay in 2001.
The official American Forces Press Service wrote that a “senior defense official said Indonesia has pledged that any Kopassus member who is credibly accused of a human rights violation will be suspended pending an investigation, will be tried in a civilian court, and will be removed from the unit if convicted.” Legislation transferring members of military to civilian courts for trials has yet to pass.
“The problem remains that the Indonesian military (TNI) as a whole and Kopassus in particular rarely take accusations of human rights violations seriously and few end up in any court,” said ETAN’s Miller. “Engaging Kopassus with only token concessions will not encourage reform, respect for rights or accountability. It may do the opposite.”
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced in Jakarta that the U.S. “will begin a gradual, limited program of security cooperation activities” with Kopassus. U.S. officials told the media that “there would be no immediate military training.” However, Gates did not say exactly what criteria will be used to decide if “to expand upon these initial steps [which] will depend upon continued implementation of reforms within Kopassus” and the TNI.
Engagement with Kopassus has been opposed by human rights and victims associations in Indonesia, Timor-Leste and internationally. It has been debated within the Obama administration and in Congress.
In May 2010, 13 senior members of Congress wrote the Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Clinton concerning plans to cooperate with Kopassus. The letter called for “a reliable vetting process critical… for identifying Kopassus officials who have violated human rights” and said “the transfer of jurisdiction over human rights crimes committed by members of the military to civilian courts should be a pre-condition for engagement with Kopassus.” Legislation to transfer members of the military to civilian courts has long been stalled. Trials of some soldiers before ad-hoc human rights courts, such as on East Timor, have resulted in acquittals.
Kopassus troops have been implicated in a range of human rights violations and war crimes in Aceh, West Papua, Timor-Leste and elsewhere. Although a few special forces soldiers have been convicted of the kidnapping of activists prior to the fall of the Suharto dictatorship and the 2001 murder of Theys Eluay, the perpetrators of the vast majority of human rights crimes continue to evade prosecution. Kopassus and other troops indicted by UN-backed prosecutors in Timor-Leste for crimes committed in 1999 during Timor’s independence referendum remain at large.
Kopassus was involved in Timor-Leste from the killings of five Australian-based journalists at Balibo in 1975 prior to Indonesia’s full scale invasion through its destructive withdrawal in 1999. Kopassus soldiers are alleged to have been involved in the 2002 ambush murder of three teachers (including two from the U.S.) near the Freeport mine in West Papua. The crimes of Kopassus are not only in the past. A Human Rights Watch report published last year documents how Kopassus soldiers “arrest Papuans without legal authority, and beat and mistreat those they take back to their barracks.” A report by journalist Allan Nairn describes security force – including a U.S.-trained Kopassus general – involvement in the killing of activists in Aceh last year. The leaders of Kopassus have consistently rejected calls to hold it accountable. In April 2010 at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the unit’s founding, Kopassus commander Maj. Gen. Lodewijk Paulus called allegations of past rights violations a “psychological burden.” He told The Jakarta Globe, “Honestly, it has become a problem and people just keep harping on them. It’s not fair.”
Lt. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, who served with Kopassus and is accused of human rights violations in East Timor and elsewhere, remains as deputy defense minister. His position is being challenged in court by victims of human rights violations in the 1998 Jakarta riots and the 1997/1998 kidnapping of student and political activists.
In 2005, the Bush administration exercised a national security waiver that allowed for full engagement with the Indonesian military for the first time since the early 1990s. The conditions for U.S. military engagement, which the Bush administration abandoned, included prosecution of those responsible for human rights violations in East Timor and elsewhere and implementation of reforms to enhance civilian control of the Indonesian military. The Bush administration waited until 2008 to propose restarting U.S. training of Kopassus, which was suspended in 1998. The State Department’s legal counsel reportedly ruled that the 1997 ban on training of military units with a history of involvement in human rights violations, known as the ‘Leahy law,’ applied to Kopassus as a whole and the training did not go forward.