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Deadly prison attack renews calls for Indonesian military reform

James Balowski - September 29, 2013

[An abridged version of this article appeared in the Australian newspaper Red Flag on October 5 http://www.redflag.org.au/article/renewed-calls-indonesian-military-reform.]

While human rights groups have welcomed the conviction last month of 12 soldiers from the Indonesian army's notorious Special Forces (Kopassus) for the premeditated murder of four civilians in March, the relatively lenient sentences and failure to investigate the involvement of senior officers highlights how military courts are not fit to try its own soldiers and prompted calls to address ongoing impunity and reform the Indonesian military (TNI).

In the early hours of March 23 a group of men disguised with ski masks and carrying AK-47 assault rifles stormed the Cebongan prison in the Central Java city of Yogyakarta. After forcing their way into the prison they gunned down four detainees in their cells who were awaiting trial for allegedly stabbing to death former Kopassus member First Sergeant Heru Santosa in a drug related brawl three days earlier. The assailants also took with them CCTV footage, threatened to blow up the prison with grenades and injured eight prison officers before leaving. The entire operation took just 15 minutes to execute.

The four victims, Hendrik Angel Sahetapi, Adrianus Candra Galaga, Gamaliel Yermiayanto Rohi Riwu and former police officer Yohanes Juan Manbait (sometimes spelled Mambait), should have been detained at the Yogyakarta police detention centre, but were transferred to Cebongan shortly before the attack – allegedly because the ceiling in the center was damaged. It later transpired that Yogyakarta police chief Brigadier General Sabar Rahardjo received intelligence that Kopassus soldiers were planning an attack on the Yogyakarta police compound to avenge their colleague. According to a national police source quoted by the September 5 Jakarta Globe, faced with the prospect of a raid by the best-trained soldiers in the TNI, Rahardjo transferred the men to Cebongan prison on March 22 without putting in place the extra resources needed to give the men a level of protection. Why Rahardjo never reported this intel to his superiors or his TNI counterpart has never been explained.

Suspicion immediately fell on the military due to the strong motive and military precision of the operation. The military top brass however was quick quash such speculations with TNI regional commander Major General Hardiono Saroso insisting that all soldiers were inside their barracks, saying "none of my soldiers were involved". He did confirm however that Santosa was a former Kopassus member who was on duty the night he was killed, and according to the Post had been transferred from Kopassus to the intelligence unit at Diponegoro military command.

Then on April 4 military police deputy chief Brigadier General Unggul K. Yudhoyono – who led the army's probe into the incident – announced that soldiers assigned to Kopassus Group 2 in Kartosuro, Central Java, had confessed to carrying out the attack as a "spontaneous" act in retaliation for the murder Santoso. Twelve Kopassus soldiers were later arrested and charged for their roles in the affair.

"The perpetrators bravely admitted to committing the crime on the first day of our investigation on March 29", Yudhoyono told reporters in Jakarta. "The attack was based on esprit de corps after discovering that a group of thugs had sadistically and brutally murdered First Sergeant Heru Santoso, the assailant's superior, who once saved his life in an operation", he said.

Along with Rahardjo, Saroso was subsequently removed his post but continued to defend the soldiers praising their "honesty" and "integrity", telling Tempo Newspaper that they "honored the esprit de corps by standing up for what they believed in". Ironically, Saroso was replaced by Major General Sunindyo, the former head of Kopassus Group 2.

Kopassus killers

Kopassus' record of human rights violations and its failure to hold it's personnel accountable spans its operations across Indonesia, beginning in the 1960s in Java and extending to East Timor, Aceh, and West Papua in the decades since.

Then called RPKAD and under the command of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's father-in-law, the late General Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, Kopassus spearheaded the mass murder and terror campaign across Java and Bali after former President Suharto and the military seized power in 1965, in which 1-2 million communists and left-wing sympathisers were killed, and hundreds of thousands of others interned without trial.

The unit was involved in the murder of five Australian-based journalists at Balibo in 1975, prior to Indonesia's full-scale invasion of East Timor. Kopassus and other troops indicted by UN-backed prosecutors in East Timor for crimes against humanity during the 25-year occupation and in 1999 remain at large. Although some Kopassus officers were convicted of the kidnapping of student activists in 1997-98 and the 2001 murder of leading West Papuan figure Theys Eluay, the majority have evaded prosecution.

Kopassus was also implicated in the 2002 fatal ambush of two US teachers and an Indonesian national near the Freeport mine in West Papua, widely believed to be retaliation for a decision by Freeport to stop paying the TNI for "security services". According to a June 2009 report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Kopassus continues to be involved in arbitrary arrest, detention and mistreatment in West Papua.

The US and Australia severed military ties with Indonesia after TNI-backed militias rampaged through East Timor following the UN-sponsored independence referendum in 1999. The US began quietly restoring contacts the following year and by 2005 had resumed full engagement with the TNI, although this still excluded Kopassus. Ignoring criticism from rights groups, in July 2010 the Barack Obama administration announced it would lift a training ban on Kopassus.

Australia resumed cooperation with Kopassus in 2003 arguing that "Kopassus had come a long way from an era of human rights abuses". In 2005 Canberra announced that it would restart counter-terrorism exercises between the Special Air Service Regiment and Kopassus beginning with a two-week exercise in Perth. "In this era of heightened terrorist threats, it is in Australia’s interests to engage with regional Special Forces, such as Kopassus, to safeguard the lives of Australians and Australian interests abroad", Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill said in a statement.

Responding to criticism from Indonesian and international rights groups who said that Kopassus had failed to undertake meaningful reform since 1999, Hill told the Sunday Age that he had made the controversial decision despite past human rights abuses because Australia was confident that no soldiers involved in human rights abuses in East Timor would be part of the exercise. "They know to nominate somebody who has human rights blemishes on their record would be embarrassing to us, and we are confident that such a person wouldn't be in the group", he told the newspaper on December 11, 2005, without citing any examples of how Kopassus had supposedly reformed.

A report released by the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University in March 2004 however found that Kopassus had not changed from its history of illegal operations and human rights abuses and urged the Australian Defense Force not to renew ties. "Based on evidence since 1998, it appears that Kopassus has not altered its methods of operation to bring them more into line with wider (if sometimes failed) political reform processes", the report said, noting that cooperation with Kopassus would be viewed in Australia and elsewhere as profoundly inappropriate, morally and legally unacceptable.

The report noted that the rationale that such cooperation is in the interest of "saving Australian lives" is questionable given Kopassus' checkered history of anti-terrorist operations. In 1981 the Kopassus Group V was involved in a partially successful hostage rescue in Bangkok after a Garuda Airlines aircraft was hijacked by an extremist Islamic organisation called Komando Jihad, which later emerged as Jemaah Islamiah. Two captured hijackers who left Bangkok with Kopassus alive arrived in Jakarta dead and it was later reviled that it was Kopassus itself that had establish the Komando Jihad in the 1970s. The second operation was when the Free Papua Movement (OPM) kidnapped nine members of the Worldwide Fund for Nature in 1996. Despite being supported by mercenaries from Executive Outcomes, Kopassus failed to find the hostages, even though they were within kilometres of them for days. Eventually the OPM killed two Indonesian hostages and freed the Europeans. The freed hostages found their way to a regular army unit, not Kopassus and none of the OPM kidnappers was found.

Calls for reform

Soon after the soldiers were indicted, banners began appearing around Yogyakarta proclaiming the Kopassus soldiers as "knights" of the people. A group calling themselves the Yogya Anti-Thuggery Youth held a series of protests praising Kopassus and collected coins – a tradition pioneered by protesters supporting victims of state injustice – for Santoso's wife. Images portraying Kopassus soldiers as caring members of society protecting the people from thuggery were posted on social media. Throughout the five-month long investigation, the military investigators characterised the slain prisoners as "thugs" and said the soldiers were acting out of loyalty to their fallen friend when they murdered the four men.

Former State Intelligence Agency chief AM Hendropriyono also weighed into the debate. Hendropriyono, a former Kopassus officer who commanded troops that perpetrated the notorious Lampung massacre of more than 200 people in 1989, and according to leaked US diplomatic cables was involved in the planning of the murder of renowned human rights campaigner Munir, said the soldiers should be given a medal. "So in legal terms they are wrong, but in moral terms they are right. If necessary they should be awarded the Mahaputra medal", he told the Detik news portal on April 8, referring to the second highest decoration awarded by the Indonesian government.

The Cebongan killings – which followed a "marathon of violence" by soldiers with rights groups reporting 51 cases of murder, attacks, intimidation, torture and land confiscation by TNI members in the first quarter of 2013 – renewed calls for the government to amend the 1997 Military Tribunal Law to allow members of the TNI to be tried in civilian courts.

"Given the staggering number of violent acts committed by soldiers, all TNI members who violate the law should go through the same legal processes as any other citizen: being tried in a civilian court", Al Araf chairperson of the human rights group Imparsial said in a press conference in Jakarta on March 24. According to Imparsial, 83 violent acts had been committed by soldiers since 2004.

Haris Azhar, the coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), said that revising the law on military tribunals is an essential part of reforming the TNI and the judiciary. Azhar said that Kontras had recorded 87 cases of violence by TNI personnel against civilians since 2004, none of which resulted in criminal charges against the offenders. "The perpetrators of these crimes and acts of violence were all tried in a military tribunal, even though none of the offenses was committed in the course of their duties", he told the March 27 Jakarta Globe. Azhar added that the problem with military tribunals was that the perpetrators tended to receive more lenient punishment than a criminal court would mete out. "It puts them beyond the reach of the law and enforces the military's culture of impunity", he said.

Hendardi, the head of the democracy watchdog the Setara Institute, said the law in its current form "makes the military untouchable by criminal law statutes." "If a soldier kills someone as part of his duty, there's no question that he should go before a military tribunal... But how can you justify a military tribunal if he attacks a police detention center and kills the inmates?", Hendardi told the Globe.

Under the 1997 Military Tribunal Law, all crimes committed by military personnel are prosecuted and tried by military courts, which are free to apply either the military penal code or the general criminal code. While civilians are subject to criminal liability under a host of criminal laws outside the criminal code, soldiers are not. Although the 2000 Law on Human Rights Courts gives human rights courts jurisdiction over cases involving military personnel that have committed serious human rights violations, this only applies to allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity. While the 2004 Armed Forces Law places military courts under the supervision of the Supreme Court, in practice the military continues to control the composition, organisation, procedures and administration of military courts.

During the UN Universal Periodic Review of Indonesia's human rights record in 2007 and again in 2012, the Indonesian government committed to reforming the military tribunal system promising to add torture and other acts of violence to the military criminal code of prosecutable offenses. To date these have not been added.

The TNI is also the only institution in the country that the country's top anti-corruption watchdog – the Corruption Eradication Commission – has no authority to investigate. Several studies have found the TNI as being among the top-ten most corruption institutions in the country and despite the Supreme Audit Agency issuing disclaimers on the TNI's financial audits on several occasions, these have never been followed up by the TNI or defense ministry.

The government of President Yudhoyono – himself a retired military officer – has been reluctant to allow TNI members to be tried in civil courts. Discussion on revisions to the law on military tribunals occurred in 2004-2009 but reached a deadlock.

Military trials

Despite these calls, the government and the TNI insisted that the soldiers would be tried by a military tribunal. Yudhoyono, while issuing a strongly worded statement condemning the soldiers' actions, stopped short of calling for a civilian trial.

Contradicting the findings of the government's own National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro said the soldiers to be tried in a military tribunal as the prison attack constituted no human rights violation. "Based on an investigation conducted by the military police, the attack inside the prison was spontaneous in nature and did not involve systematic planning. I think we should stick to these findings", Yusgiantoro said at a press briefing on April 11.

After a lengthy investigation described by rights monitors as lacking transparency and accountably, the trials began in two batches at the II-11 Yogyakarta Military Court on June 20, and were characterised by an atmosphere of intimidation and harassment. Hundreds of members of the Sekber Keistimewaan – a coalition of Yogyakarta royalist and paramilitary groups – held noisy protests and set fire to tires outside the court building in support of the defendants.

Inside the courtroom they repeatedly disrupted proceedings, loudly praising the defendants as "heroes" and "warriors" and demanding their release. On several occasions, they locked the court compound gate and attempted to intimidate journalists, human rights monitors and academics in the spectators' gallery. Protesters from the TNI backed vigilante group Pancasila Youth attended every day of the trial making speeches, flying banners and cheering the accused.

The military judges and court personnel did nothing to stop the disruptions or remove disruptive elements from the court and several eye-witnesses to the killings failed to show up and testify for reasons the court did not explain. The judges also refused to allow witnesses to testify via teleconference or wear face marks to protect their identities.

On September 5 and 6, as hundreds of people in paramilitary uniforms protested by setting fire to tyres and throwing tomatoes at the court building, the Yogyakarta military court sentenced the three soldiers most directly responsible for the killings – Second Sergeant Ucok Tigor Simbolon, Second Sergeant Sugeng Sumaryanto and First Corporal Kodik – to between 6-11 years in jail. All three were dishonorably discharged from the TNI. Sergeant Major Rokhmadi meanwhile was sentenced to 4 months 20 days and immediately released from detention after being held since April 12. The remaining eight were sentenced to between four months and 20 days for failing to notify their superiors about the attack and one year and nine months for involvement in premeditated murder and other charges. None were dismissed from the TNI.

While human rights groups such as HRW and Amnesty International (AI) said that the guilty verdicts marked an important departure from the usual impunity given TNI personnel implicated in serious crimes, the sentences imposed on the three soldiers found most culpable did not match the gravity of the crimes. Under Indonesian law, premeditated murder permits a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, which in practice constitutes 20 years.

In press release issued on September 5, AI said the convictions were an important step in ending the culture of impunity surrounding the TNI but that the military tribunals – which were tainted by accusations of witness intimidation and hampered by superficial investigations – illustrated how ill-equipped military courts were to try soldiers for rights offenses. "Military courts should never be used to try its own soldiers for human rights violations – they lack independence and impartiality, in particular in Indonesia where there's a shocking track record of impunity for security forces' past crimes", Amnesty International's Deputy Asia Pacific Director Isabelle Arradon said. AI also noted with concern that the military investigators failed to follow up on reports that police or other non-military personnel may have been complicit in the crimes and called on the government to amend the law to require that all human rights cases involving military personnel were handled by an independent civilian court.

In a statement released on September 10, HRW said that although the verdicts provide a measure of accountability absent from many past military abuses against civilians, the military justice system continues to lack the transparency, independence, and impartiality required to properly investigate and prosecute serious human rights violations.

Komnas HAM applauded the military for holding an open trial saying it was a rare show of transparency for the TNI, but called the proceedings flawed and closed to testimony from human rights monitors.

The Setara Institute called the verdict fair, but criticised the military investigation for stopping at low-ranking soldiers. "[But] still, their superiors remained untouched. It seems like the soldiers are being sacrificed to keep the institution's name clean. [The case] was presented like they did this spontaneously", Setara Institute deputy director Bonar Tigor Naipospos told the September 6 Jakarta Globe.

Hendardi said that by allowing soldiers to stand trial in a military court, the investigation stopped short of probing the involvement of higher-ranking officers in the killings. "The decision of trying the perpetrators in a military tribunal has closed the valve [on further investigation] and has allowed many of the parties allegedly involved to remain untouched", Hendardi told the September 5 Jakarta Globe.

On September 20, the Jakarta Post reported that of the 12 convicted soldiers only the three most directly involved in the killings remain in detention at the Military Police Detachment (Denpom) IV/2 Yogyakarta. "Eight convicts have been released", Denpom IV/2 Yogyakarta commander Lieutenant Colonel Jefridin told the Post. In addition to Rokhmadi who had been released immediately after sentencing, three were released because their detention terms had exceeded their sentences and five others because their detention terms ended and were not extended. Since they were not discharged from the TNI, they are presumably free to return to active duty.

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