Skip to main content

Indonesia: Civilian Courts Should Try Abusive Soldiers

Murder Case Highlights Need for Reform, Civilian Jurisdiction over Military Personnel

(New York) – The Indonesian government should urgently amend its laws so that military personnel accused of human rights abuses are tried in civilian courts, Human Rights Watch said today. Problems with military prosecutions have been evident in the handling of the case against members of the elite special forces for the execution-style murder of four detainees at a Java prison on March 23, 2013.

The military justice system in Indonesia lacks transparency, independence, and impartiality, and has failed to properly investigate and prosecute alleged serious human rights abuses by members of the military, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Indonesian government should ensure that justice is done in human rights cases by prosecuting military suspects in civilian courts,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “For too long Indonesia’s military courts have helped foster a culture of impunity by letting abusive soldiers off with a wrist-slap – or no punishment at all.”

Eleven members of the Komando Pasukan Khusus (Special Forces Command or Kopassus) were arrested on April 2 for allegedly breaking into the Cebongan prison in Yogyakarta, central Java on March 23 and murdering four detainees in their cell: Hendrik Angel Sahetapi, Yohanes Juan Manbait, Gameliel Yermianto Rohi Riwu, and Adrianus Candra Galaja.

Military investigators say that the Kopassus suspects, disguised with ski masks and carrying AK-47 assault rifles, forced their way into the prison, beat two prison guards who subsequently required hospitalization, and executed the four detainees. When leaving after the 15-minute attack, the assailants seized the prison’s closed circuit television recordings, according to prison guards and military investigators. Investigators said the motive for the murders was revenge for the killing three days earlier of their Kopassus colleague First Sgt. Heru Santoso, for which the four detainees had been arrested. Santoso and the 11 suspects all served with Kopassus Group II in Kartasura, about a two-hour drive from Yogyakarta.

On March 24, the Central Java military commander, Maj. Gen. Hardiono Saroso, whose authority extends to Kopassus Group II, rejected allegations that Kopassus personnel had perpetrated the prison murders. Nine days later, on April 2, army commander Gen. Pramono Edhie Wibowo indicated that Kopassus members had been involved in the prison attack. On April 4, an army investigating team revealed that nine Kopassus soldiers had perpetrated the attack and two other Kopassus personnel had attempted to prevent it. On April 6, the armed forces announced that Saroso had been dismissed from his post in connection with the prison murders.

Despite military confirmation of Kopassus’ culpability in the prison murders, senior military and government officials have publicly defended the suspects and downplayed the severity of the crime, Human Rights Watch said.  

On April 4, army investigator Brig. Gen. Untung Yudhoyono repeatedly described the four slain detainees as “thugs” and said their murders were an expression of Kopassus loyalty. Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro on April 12 publicly denied that the prison murders were a human rights violation on the basis that the killings were “spontaneous [and] unorganized.” Kopassus commander Maj. Gen. Agus Sutomo on April 16 insisted that the prison raid was an act of mere “insubordination” rather than a human rights abuse.

“Indonesian military and civilian authorities who proclaim the innocence of soldiers linked to serious crimes know very well they are telling the military courts how to rule on the case,” Kine said. “It’s disgraceful that after a decade of so-called military reform, soldiers suspected of killing civilians reap official praise and support.”

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 members of the military committed serious human rights abuses, at present it applies only to allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity, and not to the broad spectrum of conduct that constitutes human rights abuse.

During the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of Indonesia’s human rights record in 2007 and 2012, the Indonesian government committed to reforming the military tribunal system. That promised reform 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. Investigations into alleged criminal acts committed by soldiers are undertaken by military police, prosecuted by military prosecutors, and adjudicated by military judges. Military judges are active service members. Military judges can be dismissed by an Honorary Board of Judges whose members are designated by the military commander.

Kopassus’ record of 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 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.

Serious abuses by Indonesian forces and the failure to fully prosecute and punish military personnel extends far beyond Kopassus, Human Rights Watch said. In a number of cases over the past decade, the Indonesian military justice system has dispensed apparently extremely lenient sentences to soldiers convicted of serious human rights abuses against civilians:

  • On June 6, 2012, hundreds of soldiers from the army’s 756th Battalion in Papua attacked the town of Wamena as retaliation against Papuan villagers who had attacked two of their comrades involved in a traffic accident in the town. One soldier died in the ensuing brawl. The soldiers burned 87 houses, killed one Papuan civil servant and seriously wounded 14 other Papuan men. None of the soldiers involved in the violence faced prosecution.
  • On May 30, 2010, several Indonesian soldiers detained two Papuan farmers, Tunaliwor Kiwo and Telangga Gire, at a military checkpoint in Tingginambut, Puncak Jaya, in Papua. The soldiers tortured them, demanding the farmers lead them to alleged weapons caches in their village. A graphic video documented the soldiers perpetrating sexual violence against Kiwo and threatening to kill Gire. The military tribunal convicted only three soldiers involved in the torture on charges of “insubordination” and handed down prison sentences of between eight and ten months.
  • Video footage documented abuses perpetrated on March 17, 2010, by a 12-soldier checkpoint unit of the army 753rd Battalion, led by Lt. Cosmos in Papua’s Kolome village also in Puncak Jaya. The video documented the unit interrogating Papuan villagers, beating them with their helmets and kicking them. Lt. Col. CHK Adil Karo Karo, a military judge, criticized the soldier who recorded the abuse, saying “You’re stupid. Knowing how sensitive it was, why did you keep recording it anyway?” On November 12, 2010, the Jayapura military tribunal found Cosmos and three soldiers under his command guilty of “insubordination.” Cosmos was sentenced to seven months in prison while the three privates received sentences of five months each.
  • In June 2008, a military court found 13 navy personnel guilty of opening fire on a group of civilians in Pasuruan, East Java, killing four civilians and injuring several others in May 2007. The shootings were in connection with a land dispute involving a business that had hired the soldiers to provide security. Although the relevant charges carried a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, the soldiers received prison terms ranging from 18 months to 36 months, and dismissal from the military.
  • Three soldiers were convicted in July 2005 of torturing a civilian in Bogor, West Java, on the suspicion that he had stolen a pair of sandals. According to a forensic report, the civilian died the following day from injuries sustained as a result of the torture. A military court convicted the soldiers of assault and sentenced them to prison terms ranging between one-and-a-half and 18 months.
  • Three soldiers convicted in July 2003 for raping four women in North Aceh, subject to up to 12 years' imprisonment, were given prison sentences ranging from two years and six months to three years and six months and dismissal from the military.

“The Indonesian government should demonstrate it is serious about ending military abuses by bringing soldiers who commit crimes against civilians under the jurisdiction of the civilian courts,” Kine said. “Broader democratic reforms in Indonesia require genuine civilian control over the armed forces.”


Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country