Last July, when the United States lifted its ban on military assistance to Indonesia's elite Special Forces, Kopassus, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised the Indonesian government, noting that important military reforms have taken place over the last decade, since the fall of Suharto.
"The Ministry of Defense has publicly pledged to protect human rights and advance human rights accountability and committed to suspend from active duty military officials credibly accused of human rights abuses, remove from military service any member convicted of such abuses, and cooperate with the prosecution of members of the military who have violated human rights," Gates said.
But the light sentences issued Jan. 24 by a military tribunal in Papua province for three soldiers convicted of a torture episode caught on mobile-phone video indicates otherwise.
The 10-minute, mobile-phone video, which came to light in October, shows soldiers kicking one of the men, Tunaliwor Kiwo, in the face and chest, burning his face with a cigarette, and applying burning wood to his penis. The soldiers placed a knife to the neck of the other man, Telangga Gire, while threatening to kill him. Kiwo later described in a videotaped interview how the torture went on for three days. The soldiers beat him with their hands and sticks, crushed his toes with pliers, suffocated him with plastic bags, burnt his genitals and other body parts, cut his face and head and smeared the wounds with chilies.
But military prosecutors clearly didn't think that such acts constituted torture - the soldiers were only charged with the lesser offense of disobeying orders. Even so, prosecutors failed to ask for the maximum sentence of 30 months, and only charged three of the six soldiers in the video. No commanding officer has been charged. In the end, the military tribunal convicted the three, but handed down sentences of between eight and 10 months. Given past army practice, it is not even clear the three will be discharged after their brief sentence is served.
Three days of torture, it seems, is not a serious human rights violation in Indonesia, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono seems to agree. On Jan. 21, in a speech to military and police officers, he dismissed this case as a "minor incident" and claimed that since he took office in 2004 "no gross violations of human rights in Indonesia have occurred."
From top to bottom, the Indonesian authorities' response to this case shows all that is wrong with Indonesia's military justice system. And it shows why the United States and other military partners need to push for civilian prosecution of members of Indonesia's military who commit crimes against civilians. Experience has shown that Indonesia's military prosecutors fail to adequately investigate and prosecute alleged serious human rights abuses by soldiers and officers, and that the military courts lack transparency, independence and impartiality. And that's only the cases that reach the public - doubtless many more extrajudicial killings and cases of rape, and torture by military personnel are never reported, much less make it to a military court. It's clear the only reason this case made it to a military tribunal was because it was captured on film and caused an international outcry.
But this is the second time in recent months that the same battalion - Kostrad 753 - has been caught on film mistreating civilians. In the other case, as well, military prosecutors charged soldiers with disobeying orders instead of assault. The two soldiers convicted have filed an appeal with the military high court in Surabaya, East Java, which often fails to make its verdicts public.
The United States lifted its ban on military assistance to Kopassus because of promises from the Indonesian military, despite continuing concerns from some parts of the Obama administration about its human rights record. Although the soldiers involved in this incident are not Kopassus, given the close military relationship, it's entirely appropriate for the United States to call out the Indonesian government for breaking its promise to hold soldiers accountable.
The State Department spokesman, Philip Crowley, said in a statement on Twitter on Jan. 26 that the sentences "do not reflect the seriousness of the abuses of two Papuan men depicted in a 2010 video ... Indonesia must hold its armed forces accountable for violations of human rights. We are concerned and will continue to follow this case."
In line with this statement, given that two cases were recorded on film by the same battalion, the United States should ask why the battalion is not facing further investigation. Disobeying orders seems to be a convenient way to cover up accountability for more serious crimes. In line with the Leahy law, which prohibits U.S. military assistance to units implicated in serious human rights violations, the United States should clarify whether they have had dealings with Kostrad 753, and review their relations with any unit with members tried on insubordination charges.
Clearly the Indonesian military is not capable of prosecuting these serious crimes effectively, and the message is not coming from the top to do more about torture. The United States and other military partners who want to engage with the Indonesian military should speak up publicly about the need to hold soldiers to account. The United States, Australia and other military partners should show that they do not wish to be complicit in torture by Indonesian troops, by speaking up about this case and calling for President Yudhoyono to endorse a pending bill to try such cases in civilian courts, which has been blocked by the military's backers in parliament.
Many ordinary Indonesians want to see justice done for crimes like torture. The parliament itself has called for inquiries into past abuses by the military. The United States, Australia and other governments should stand with Indonesians calling for reform, and stand against sweeping these abuses under the carpet.
Elaine Pearson is the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.