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Indonesia: US Should Justify Training Counterterrorism Unit

Resuming Ties Should Require Resolving Concerns About Special Forces’ Abuses

(New York) - The US government should train members of Indonesia's elite special forces only if Indonesia takes sufficient steps toward accountability and reform to deter future abuses, Human Rights Watch said in two letters released today.  

Ahead of President Barack Obama's anticipated late-March trip to Indonesia, US officials have suggested that the Defense Department is seeking to provide training to members of Indonesia's special forces (Komando Pasukan Khusus, or Kopassus), an abusive force that includes individuals implicated in serious human rights violations. US training for Kopassus has been restricted for over a decade because of concerns about its record and lack of accountability for abuses. 

"US training for Kopassus could someday improve its human rights performance, but only if those trained have a real incentive to stop committing abuses," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.  "Unfortunately, those Kopassus soldiers convicted for human rights abuse rarely find it an impediment to advancing through the ranks."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told members of Congress on February 4, 2010, that the State Department is trying to "resume support for vital security functions," in Indonesia and "move into a new era of cooperation," specifically citing Indonesia's performance on counterterrorism.

The first letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, sent February 4, identified specific human rights concerns related to the Indonesian military and recommended measures the US could take to encourage development of a professional, accountable, and rights-respecting military in Indonesia.

The second letter, sent today to Secretaries Clinton and Gates, raised questions about a plan to approve US training for young members of Kopassus' counterterror force, known as Unit 81, on the grounds that they would presumably not have been involved in the unit's past abuses.  

Human Rights Watch raised a number of concerns about Unit 81, which has existed since 1982, though under different unit designations.  The unit's movements have long been shrouded in secrecy, but available information includes credible allegations that its members participated in serious human rights abuses, including the enforced disappearances of student activists in 1997 and 1998.  Teams of Unit 81 soldiers are reported to have deployed to conflict zones, including East Timor and Aceh, during which Kopassus was implicated in serious abuses.

Limitations mandated by the US Congress on providing training to foreign military forces under what is known as the "Leahy law" bar the US from providing training, in the absence of corrective steps,  to  military units  that are credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights. State Department policy currently requires that the human rights records of all individual nominees to receive US military training be vetted before they can be approved for participation.  

"The main thing that distinguishes Unit 81 from the rest of Kopassus is the secrecy with which it operates and that its name has changed - hardly the kind of reforms the US should be encouraging," said Richardson. "The US government should explain why Unit 81 should be treated any differently from the rest of Kopassus."

In the February 4 letter, Human Rights Watch detailed human rights abuses committed by Kopassus.  Although 11 military personnel, including several members of Kopassus, were convicted for abducting the student activists in 1997 and 1998, as of 2007 the majority remained in the military and had received promotions. A Kopassus officer, Lt. Col. Tri Hartomo, was convicted of abuse leading to the 2001 death of a Papuan activist, Theys Eluay, but today Hartomo serves in a senior command position in Kopassus.

 And although Lt. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin was implicated in a massacre in East Timor while serving in Kopassus and other abuses for which he has never been subjected to a credible investigation, he was appointed deputy defense minister in January.

Kopassus soldiers continue to be implicated in abuses such as the arbitrary arrest and detention and mistreatment of youths in Papua, as documented in a June 2009 report by Human Rights Watch, "What Did I Do Wrong?"

Human Rights Watch outlined three key steps Indonesia should take to address accountability for past and future abuses by Kopassus.  The military should permanently discharge personnel convicted of serious human rights abuses. It should adopt transparent measures to ensure credible, impartial and timely investigations into all future allegations of human rights abuse. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono should establish an ad hoc tribunal to investigate the enforced disappearance of student activists in 1997-98, as Indonesia's House of Representatives recommended in September 2009.

Once Indonesia has taken these steps, the US could provide limited, non-combat training to individual Kopassus members who have been carefully and effectively vetted, Human Rights Watch said.   However, unconditional assistance to Kopassus, including combat training and equipment, should be provided only once Indonesia has adopted a number of structural reforms to address Kopassus' lack of accountability.

The steps  should include making genuine progress in eliminating all forms of military business; launching renewed investigations into other serious human rights abuses in which  security services have been implicated, such as the 2004 murder of Indonesian human rights activist Munir Thalib; and allowing civilian courts to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by military personnel against civilians. 

"It's in the US's interests to make sure that Indonesia is serious about a professional, rights-respecting military," Richardson said.  "President Obama should use this opportunity to ensure Indonesia curbs the sort of brutal conduct that led the US to cut off aid to Kopassus in the first place."

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