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Eyes on spies in Indonesia

Asia Times - April 16, 2011

Megawati Wijaya, Jakarta New legislation before Indonesia's parliament aims to give special powers to intelligence agencies charged with fighting terrorism. While advocates of the bill argue tougher laws are needed to pre-empt attacks, if passed as proposed the legislation will erode civil liberties and represent a significant setback for the country's fledgling democracy.

The bill proposes to grant the main state intelligence agency, known as BIN, the power to arrest suspected terrorists before they attack. It also allows for the pre-emptive arrest of espionage and subversion suspects and empowers BIN to wiretap phone conversations, intercept without a court order social media content such as Facebook and Twitter and secretly access suspects' bank accounts.

Many Western governments, including the United States, have hailed Indonesia's counter-terrorism efforts, including its crackdown on Islamic militants linked to the regional Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist group. JI has been held responsible for various attacks, including the 2002 Bali bombing that killed over 200 people, and is known to have links with al-Qaeda's global network.

Those successes have been chalked up partly to close cooperation with US and Australian officials through the police-run Detachment 88 counter-terrorism task force, which has managed a series of high profile arrests and executions of wanted terrorists.

In September last year, the government created the interdepartmental National Antiterrorism Agency (BNPT), which sets the country's broad counter-terrorism agenda and oversees the "deradicalization" of convicted terrorists. Recent arrests and incidents, meanwhile, have given strong impetus to the controversial new intelligence bill's passage.

Authorities recently arrested erstwhile terror suspect Abu Bakar Bashir on charges he was involved with an underground terrorist training camp in Aceh province. Operatives at the camp stand accused of plotting attacks on hotels and embassies in Jakarta and assassinations of high-profile figures, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Last month, parcel bombs were sent to activists involved in promoting pluralism in a known civil society center in Jakarta. One of the bombs exploded and injured three people. No suspects have been identified or apprehended but media reports noted those targeted were known to be at loggerheads with Islamic fundamentalist groups.

BIN, which is tasked with tracking terror suspects and their activities, was a subject of controversy long before the advent of the "war on terror".

In his book Intel: Inside Indonesia's Intelligence Service, security expert Kenneth Conboy wrote that during Suharto's authoritarian regime BIN's predecessor, Bakin, regularly detained and clamped down on the government's domestic political opponents. It was also instrumental in tracking and combating local insurgent groups, he wrote.

While the military has undergone significant reforms since Suharto's 1998 downfall, progress in making BIN more accountable has been less apparent, experts say. Throughout its 60 plus years of existence, BIN and its earlier incarnations operated without a firm legal and political foundation.

BIN is currently one among several Indonesian intelligence agencies, including the military's BAIS, the police's Intelpam and a separate intelligence unit responsible to the attorney general. Analysts believe inter-agency competition and suspicion has hampered intelligence sharing and hence operations over the years.

Regulations for national intelligence bodies are covered only by presidential decree that generally fail to spell out clearly their functions and activities. Until now BIN reports directly to only the president and is not held accountable to parliament for its actions. That, critics and analysts say, has historically provided cover for abuses.

Accountable spooks

Some security experts anticipate the proposed new bill, which took some eight years to draft, will provide greater checks and balances on BIN.

"While intelligence operations have to be very exclusive and secretive, there needs to be laws to regulate them," said Andi Widjajanto, a social and political science lecturer at the University of Indonesia and long-time observer of Indonesia's intelligence agencies. "It's very dangerous not to have laws regulating intelligence [bodies] as it can lead to abuse of power," he said.

Those future powers are now a matter of hot dispute between the ministry of defense and parliament. In particular, the military has pushed for the power to detain and interrogate suspects without a court order for up to seven days, a period during which the suspect would not be allowed access to a lawyer or other outside counsel.

De facto opposition party Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), whose predecessor party strongly opposed Suharto's authoritarian rule, has taken issue with the provision.

"The provision is prone to abuse. It could be used to legalize kidnapping," PDI-P secretary general Tjahjo Kumolo told the local media earlier this week. "Taking a person from a place without an arrest warrant, without clear identity of the arrestor, without a specific identification of the interrogation place, without wife and kids knowing for seven times 24 hours. How is that different to kidnapping?" he said.

Meanwhile, a coalition comprised of 21 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also lodged complaints with the House of Representatives, arguing that clauses in the bill violate the presumption of innocence and equality before the law that assures the fair treatment of all Indonesian people, including suspected criminals and terrorists.

BIN's head, Sutanto, has publicly countered those criticisms for reasons of national security. "It's impossible to find out everything in seven days. How can we produce optimal results if we're being hindered by the laws?" he said. Defense minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro added: "When bombs are found everywhere because we cannot make arrests prior to the incident, don't blame us."

University of Indonesia's Widjajanto takes a more nuanced view of the contested provision.

"Counter-terrorism efforts in Indonesia have been quite successful. There focus has always been based on maintenance of law and order. Until today, not even one suspected terrorist, including the Bali bombers, has told the trial that they have been tortured during investigation," said Widjajanto.

"Compared to the Patriot Act in the US and ISA [Internal Security Act] in Singapore, where investigations can be months or years long, our provision that limits investigation to 7 x 24 hours is already very lenient," he said.

Graver concerns surround the provisions that will allow BIN to wiretap phone conversations, intercept with a court order social media messages and secret scrutiny of bank accounts. Elsam, a local rights group, has proposed that the power to eavesdrop should be deliberated in separate legislation.

House of Representatives (DPR) speaker Marzuki Alie has expressed similar concerns, telling local media, "BIN can use the power to target certain people it hates." Tubagus Hasanudin, deputy chief of the DPR's defense commission, has proposed a monthly meeting between BIN and legislators to review wiretapping results and ensure that surveillance technology has been used only for its agreed upon purpose.

Critics note that the intelligence bill also lacks provisions prohibiting BIN from supporting political parties or becoming directly involved in politics. Spies playing politics was common practice during the Suharto era, when several loyal BIN agents rose to the rank of minister, and has continued through the country's post-Suharto transition to democracy.

For example, in 2004 then BIN chief A M Hendropriyono was openly involved in the re-election campaign of then president Megawati Sukarnoputri and her PDI-P party candidates. Current BIN head Sutanto is a known close friend to Yudhoyono dating to their days as cadets at the Armed Forces Academy. Then as a member of the police force, he openly supported Yudhoyono's re-election campaign in 2009.

Given BIN's current obligation to report only to the president and not to parliament, it's impossible to separate BIN from politics, said Widjajanto. Indeed, there is widespread speculation that the long delays in passing the intelligence bill is due in part to a lack of political will at the top. But without greater regulation and scrutiny over BIN's activities, nobody can be sure if that is the case.

[Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based journalist. She may be contacted at megawati.wijaya@gmail.com.]

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