Amend Laws to Allow Civilian Prosecutions of Military Rights Abuses
September 10, 2013
“Yogyakarta’s military judges sent a long overdue message that soldiers shouldn’t expect to get off easy for serious crimes against civilians. But for these verdicts to have real impact, the prosecutors should appeal the sentences to make sure the punishment fits the crime, in this case, murder."
Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director

(New York) – Indonesian military prosecutors should appeal insufficient sentences imposed on 12 Special Forces soldiers convicted in the murders of four detained criminal suspects, Human Rights Watch said today.

On September 5 and 6, 2013, a military court in Yogyakarta, central Java, sentenced 12 members of the Special Forces Command (Komando Pasukan Khusus, known as Kopassus) to prison terms of four months and 20 days up to 11 years for their roles in the execution-style killings of four men in police detention on March 23, 2013. The guilty verdicts – ranging from failure to warn superiors of the plot to premeditated murder – marked an important departure from the usual impunity given Indonesian military personnel implicated in serious crimes, but the sentences imposed on the three soldiers found most culpable did not appear to match the gravity of the crimes. Under Indonesian law, premeditated murder permits a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, which in practice constitutes 20 years.

“Yogyakarta’s military judges sent a long overdue message that soldiers shouldn’t expect to get off easy for serious crimes against civilians,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “But for these verdicts to have real impact, the prosecutors should appeal the sentences to make sure the punishment fits the crime, in this case, murder.”

Eleven Kopassus members were arrested on April 2 for allegedly breaking into the Cebongan prison in Yogyakarta, on March 23, and fatally shooting four criminal suspects who were being detained for the murder of a Kopassus colleague three days earlier. A twelfth soldier was arrested later.

Military prosecutors said that the Kopassus defendants, disguised with ski masks and carrying AK-47 assault rifles, forced their way into the prison, threatened and beat 12 prisons guards, two of whom required hospitalization. The soldiers then executed four detainees: Hendrik Angel Sahetapi, Yohanes Juan Manbait, Gameliel Yermianto Rohi Riwu, and Adrianus Candra Galaja. When leaving after the 15-minute attack, the assailants seized the prison’s closed circuit television recordings, prison guards said. Investigators alleged that murders were revenge for the killing on March 20 of Kopassus First Sgt. Heru Santoso. Santoso and the 12 defendants all served with Kopassus Group II in Kartasura, about a two-hour drive from Yogyakarta.

The trial was characterized by an atmosphere of intimidation. Hundreds of members of the Sekber Keistimewaan, a coalition of Yogjakarta royalist and paramilitary groups, wore jungle camouflage and noisily protested outside the court building in support of the Kopassus defendants. Sekber Keistimewaan and its coalition members inside the courtroom repeatedly disrupted the court proceedings, loudly praising the Kopassus defendants as “heroes” and “warriors” and demanding their release. On several occasions, they locked the court compound gate while prosecutors were presenting their case and attempted to intimidate journalists, human rights monitors, and academics in the spectators’ gallery. Sekber Keistimewaan members also shouted racist remarks at court attendees from East Nusa Tenggara province, the home province of the four murdered detainees.

The military judges and court personnel did not act to stop such disruptions or remove disruptive elements from the courtroom. Several witnesses to the detention center killings failed to show up and testify for reasons that court personnel did not explain. Teguh Soedarsono of Indonesia’s official Witness and Victim Protection Agency said such intimidation tactics had undermined the possibility of a fair trial. The judge rejected suggestions by some witnesses that they be allowed to wear face masks to protect their identities without offering suitable alternatives.

Although the Yogyakarta verdicts provide a measure of accountability absent from many past military abuses against civilians, Indonesia’s military justice system continues to lack the transparency, independence, and impartiality required to properly investigate and prosecute serious human rights violations.

Under Indonesian law, military personnel cannot be tried in civilian courts, with only a few rarely invoked exceptions. The 1997 Law on Military Courts provides that such courts have jurisdiction to prosecute all crimes committed by soldiers. Additionally, the 1997 Law on Military Courts states that military courts can only apply one of two laws: the Military Penal Code and the general Criminal Code. This means that while civilians are subject to a criminal liability under a host of criminal laws outside the Criminal Code, soldiers are not. While the 2000 Law on Human Rights Courts authorizes human rights courts to assert jurisdiction over cases involving allegations that military personnel committed serious human rights violations, at present the law applies only to allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity, and not to the broad spectrum of conduct that constitutes human rights abuses.

During the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of Indonesia’s human rights record in 2007 and again in 2012, the Indonesian government committed to reforming the military tribunal system. Those promised reforms includes adding torture and other acts of violence to the military criminal code of prosecutable offenses and ensuring the definition of those offenses are consistent. However, to date the government has not added those offenses to the military criminal code.

Although the 2004 Armed Forces Law placed the military courts under the supervision of Indonesia's Supreme Court, in practice, the military continues to control the composition, organization, procedure, and administration of the military courts. Military judges can be dismissed by an Honorary Board of Judges whose members are designated by the military commander.

The poor record of Kopassus for human rights violations and its failure to hold the abusers accountable spans its operations across Indonesia, beginning in the 1960s in Java and extending to Kalimantan, East Timor, Aceh, and Papua in the decades since. The well-documented East Timor abuses prompted the United States to impose a ban on military contact with the elite forces in 1999. In 2010, the US lifted the ban. Human Rights Watch and domestic human rights organizations criticized the ban on the basis that the Indonesian military, and Kopassus in particular, had failed to demonstrate a genuine commitment to accountability for serious human rights abuses.

“Empowering civilian courts to prosecute military personnel implicated in human rights abuses against civilians is an essential step in ending Indonesia’s long and pervasive culture of impunity for military abuses,” Kine said.

The sentences handed down in the Yogyakarta case were as follows:

1.      Tigor “Ucok” Simbolon, Second Sergeant. Sentence of 11 years in prison and dishonorable discharge for premeditated murder and other charges;

2.      Sugeng Sumaryanto, Second Sergeant. Sentence of eight years and dishonorable discharge for premeditated murder and other charges;

3.      Kodik, First Corporal. Sentence of six years and dishonorable discharge for premeditated murder and other charges;

4.      Tri Juwanto, First Sergeant. Sentence of one year and nine months for involvement in premeditated murder and other charges;

5.      Anjar Rahmanto, First Sergeant. Sentence of one year and nine months for involvement in premeditated murder and other charges;

6.      Martinus Robertus Banani, First Sergeant. Sentence of one year and nine months for involvement in premeditated murder and other charges;

7.      Suprapto, First Sergeant. Sentence of one year and nine months for involvement in premeditated murder and other charges;

8.      Hermawan Siswoyo, First Sergeant. Sentence of one year and nine months for involvement in premeditated murder and other charges;

9.      Ikhmawan Suprapto, Second Sergeant. Sentence of 15 months for assisting the commission of an assault;

10.  Sutar, Chief Sergeant. Sentence of four months and 20 days for failing to notify his superiors about the attack;

11.  Rokhmadi, Major Sergeant. Sentence of four months and 20 days for failing to notify his superiors about the attack; and

12.  Muhammad Zaenuri, Major Sergeant. Sentence of four months and 20 days for failing to notify his superiors about the attack. 

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