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Gen. Wiranto shakes hand with President Joko Widodo after the new cabinet ministers’ swearing-in in Jakarta, Indonesia on July 27, 2016.  © 2016 EPA

(Jakarta) – Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should reverse his decision to appoint a former general indicted for crimes against humanity as his new security minister, Human Rights Watch said today.

The former general, Wiranto, was chief of Indonesia's armed forces in 1999 when the Indonesian army and military-backed militias carried out numerous atrocities against East Timorese after they voted for independence. In February 2003, he was indicted for crimes against humanity by the United Nations-sponsored Special Panels for Serious Crimes of the Dili District Court and named as a chief suspect by the Indonesian Human Rights Commission. The charges against Wiranto are so serious that in 2004 the United States placed Wiranto and five others accused of crimes in East Timor on a visa watch list that could bar them from entering the country.

“President Jokowi’s decision to appoint Wiranto to his cabinet is a slap in the face to Indonesians seeking accountability for past atrocities in Indonesia,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Wiranto’s alleged complicity in murder, arson, and mass forced expulsions in East Timor in 1999 entitles him to a fair criminal trial, not a seat in the cabinet.”

Wiranto’s appointment calls into question President Jokowi’s commitment to pursuing accountability for past human rights violations. In August 2015, the government announced that it would form a “reconciliation commission” to seek a “permanent solution for all unresolved human rights abuses” of the past half century. Those abuses include the massacres of 1965-1966, in which up to one million people were killed, as well as 11 high-priority human rights cases in Papua. Wiranto’s predecessor, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, had led the government’s efforts toward accountability, which included plans to exhume mass graves from the 1965-66 massacres and the creation of an investigation team  to probe abuses in Papua. It is uncertain whether Wiranto will pursue those initiatives, Human Rights Watch said.

When East Timor voted for independence in September 1999 in a UN-administered referendum, the Indonesian military and pro-Jakarta Timorese militias went on a campaign of killing and other abuses. An estimated 1,000 to 2,000 East Timorese civilians lost their lives in the months before, and days immediately after, the vote. Approximately 500,000 people were forced from their homes or fled to seek refuge.

On February 24, 2003, the UN-sponsored East Timor Serious Crimes Unit filed an indictment for crimes against humanity against Wiranto and three other Indonesian generals, three colonels and the former governor of East Timor. The charges included murder, arson, destruction of property and forced relocation. The indictment covers crimes committed before and after East Timor's referendum on independence, and the Serious Crimes Unit submitted 1,500 pages of evidence in support. However, Indonesia's then-foreign minister, Hasan Wirajuda, said the government would “simply ignore” the indictments by the UN-sponsored tribunal. In addition, the Indonesian Attorney General's office ignored the recommendations of its own national human rights commission that Wiranto be put on trial, allowing Wiranto to remain free from criminal prosecution.

Wiranto ran as candidate in the 2004 presidential election for the Golkar party.

“By offering Wiranto a cabinet position, President Jokowi is undermining his own important efforts to obtain accountability for the terrible abuses of Indonesia’s past,” Kine said. “The United Nations, along with the US, Australia and EU countries, among others, should urgently communicate to Jokowi their concern and revulsion that an individual implicated in crimes against humanity is now the country’s security chief.”

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