A recent appeals court decision to acquit 12 soldiers convicted last year of a notorious 1984 massacre in Jakarta, Indonesia, could complicate efforts by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to normalize military ties with the Southeast Asian nation.
The acquittal, which was reported last week by the BBC but has yet to be officially confirmed, follows a series of court decisions that have freed military officers from responsibility for major abuses of human rights, particularly the 1999 rampage by military-backed militias in East Timor.
It also follows approval by the U.S. House of Representatives of an administration request to lift all restrictions on military aid for Indonesia in next year’s pending foreign aid bill.
The Senate, however, is expected to approve its own version later this summer, according to one aide, who warned that the reported acquittal will make it more likely that the upper chamber will maintain existing curbs.
"This kind of action suggests that it would be premature to drop existing restrictions," said the aide, noting that a recent finding by a commission appointed by Jakarta’s Indonesia’s president, retired Gen. Bambang Yudhoyono, that agents of the military-run State Intelligence Agency (BIN) were behind the murder-by-poison of a prominent human rights activist would also bolster lawmakers who opposed rapid normalization of military ties.
Human Rights Watch also strongly denounced the reported court acquittals in the case of the so-called Tanjung Priok massacre, which took place in September 1984 when security forces fired on Muslim protesters during anti-government demonstrations in north Jakarta, killing 33 people. The demonstration was held to denounce the arrests of several key Muslim leaders.
"Whether it is a massacre from the Suharto era or killings in East Timor, these verdicts show that the Indonesian military continues to get away with murder," said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. "There is clearly no political will in Indonesia to address this kind of impunity."
The acquittals, he added, also made clear that, in spite of Yudhoyono’s election and the reformist complexion of his government, the military remained a law unto itself.
"Because President Yudhoyono was elected democratically, many now wrongly believe that Indonesia’s military has been reformed," he said. "This is not the case. The military remains above the law, apparently too powerful for the courts to tame."
The Tanjung Priok case was one of two decreed in 2001 by then-President Abdurrahman Wahid based on a law passed by the Indonesian parliament the year before that established special human rights courts.
The other was aimed at investigating and prosecuting those responsible for the 1999 rampage in Timor in which hundreds of people were killed and most of the territory’s infrastructure was destroyed. Sixteen military officers and two civilians were put on trial.
Last year, an appeals court overturned the convictions of all of the military officers, including Maj. Gen. Adam Damiri, the highest-ranking military officer to be convicted of crimes against humanity.
The only convictions that were sustained were of ethnic Timorese civilians, including a militia leader, whose sentence was reduced from 10 to five years in prison, and the former governor of the province, Abilio Jose Soares, who is currently serving a three-year term.
The appeals court decision elicited protests from the Bush administration which, however, has made little secret of its desire to normalize military ties that were initially restricted following the massacre of over 200 civilian demonstrators in Dili, East Timor, in 1991 and then virtually severed altogether after the 1999 rampage.
As the world’s most populous Muslim nation, and one where Islamic extremists have made some inroads, the Pentagon, in particular, believes that Jakarta has a key role to play in its "global war on terrorism" (GWOT).
Since 2001, the Pentagon and the administration have waged a relentless and largely successful effort to ease restrictions on U.S. military ties with Jakarta and open up new channels of military aid, mostly through the provision of "anti-terrorism" assistance and military exercises.
Under administration pressure, Congress gradually dropped a series of conditions on the resumption of military assistance after 2001, including accountability for the East Timor rampage and subordination of the military to civilian authority.
The administration’s courtship of Jakarta received a major shot in the arm after Washington sent an aircraft carrier task force to take part in relief operations in strife-torn Aceh province alongside Indonesian soldiers.
By late last year, only one condition on renewing military aid and non-lethal military sales to Indonesia remained that the secretary of state certify that both the armed forces were cooperating fully with a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigation of the August 2002 killings of two U.S. schoolteachers and an Indonesian colleague in an ambush in Papua province.
In late February, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice certified accordingly, despite the fact that the individual named by the FBI as a perpetrator of the killings had well-known links to the local armed forces commanders and was probably acting at their behest.
Indeed, the suspect, Anthonius Wamang, remains at large in Papua and has yet to be indicted, let alone arrested, fueling suspicions that he has received military protection. The certification paved the way for the renewal of Indonesia’s eligibility for the International Military Education and Training (IMET), a giant step toward the Indonesian military’s full rehabilitation.
This was followed late last month by the House, acting at the behest of the Pentagon and its Republican leadership, agreeing to lift all restrictions on military aid for Indonesia, beginning the start of fiscal year 2006 on Oct. 1.
The action has angered human rights and church groups, 53 of which signed an appeal to Bush just before Yudhoyono’s visit here in late May.
"If the Bush administration and its allies in Congress were serious about promoting democratic reform and human rights in Indonesia," said Karen Orenstein, Washington coordinator for the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN), "they would not be seeking to prop up the Indonesian military, the country’s least democratic institution."
In its statement Monday, HRW said the appeals court decision on the Tanjung Priok killings means that, as in East Timor, no Indonesian military officer will be held accountable.
Fourteen active and retired military officers originally stood trial for the massacre. Two other soldiers accused taking part in the incident were acquitted last year, including the current head of Indonesia’s special forces, Maj. Gen. Sriyanto Muntrasan, who was then North Jakarta military commander.
One of Muntrasan’s predecessors as special forces commander, Maj. Gen. Muchdi Purwopranjono, has been implicated by the presidential commission in last September’s assassination of rights activist Munir Said Thalib, who was poisoned with a lethal dose of arsenic while traveling on Indonesia’s commercial airline, Garuda, from Jakarta to Amsterdam to attend a rights conference.
Muchdi, who has denied any responsibility for the murder, was deputy director of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) at the time and reportedly received more than two dozen calls on his confidential number from one of the main suspects just before and after the poisoning. Muchdi served as special forces commander in the late 1990s.
(Inter Press Service)
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