Indonesian military trial outrages activists who charge torture

An Indonesian military court sentenced three soldiers to less than a year in jail for their role in the torture of two farmers from Papua, sparking an outcry from human rights activists.

An Indonesian military court today handed down light sentences to three soldiers for their role in the torture of two farmers from Papua, sparking an outcry from human rights activists who slammed the verdict as weak.

The accused were caught on a cellphone video, posted on YouTube last October, torturing two farmers who were believed to have information on a secret weapons cache belonging to a group of separatists known as the Free Papua Movement.

But because the military criminal code does not recognize torture as a punishable crime, despite Indonesia having ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 1999, the men were found guilty of "not following orders."

“This was a test case for the Indonesian government and it has failed,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Slapping soldiers on the wrist is not an acceptable way of dealing with torture.”

First Pvt. Tamrin Mahan Giri, First Pvt. Yakson Agu, and Sgt. Irwan Rizkiyanto were given sentences of eight, nine, and 10 months, respectively. The light sentences call into question the government’s pledge to the United States to reform the armed forces.

An apology and a promise

In an uncharacteristic move, the military, which has long been condemned for its brutality in Papua, took responsibility for the incident and promised to launch an immediate investigation.

But activists said the trial was a smokescreen to make it appear that the government was serious about tackling military abuses ahead of a visit from President Obama last November.

Indonesia’s military is known to have committed gross human rights abuses during the 32-year-rule of former dictator Suharto. Although the institution has undergone reform since that time, activists say the judicial system has done too little to bring senior military officers to justice.

The US only recently lifted a 12-year ban on training Indonesia's Kopassus, an elite Special Forces unit accused of gross human rights abuses in the 1990s. The US said it was monitoring the latest case, though it has made no public moves to reconsider support for the Kopassus.

The best the military could do?

Human rights groups say the soldiers should have been tried in civilian courts, since military courts do not decide on cases of torture. Other activists say the military is seldom disciplined for unnecessary use of force, and that abuse will continue as long as the government limits public access to Papua.

The remote, resource-rich province has fostered a low-level insurgency almost since the time it was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 under a UN-sponsored referendum that Papuans contend was neither free nor representative.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Toisutta told local media that the trial was part of ongoing measures to “fix our institution.”

Lt. Col. Harry Priyatna, a military spokesman in Papua, told Reuters there was not enough evidence for a torture charge in civilian courts "so to avoid them being acquitted we laid the disobedience charge."

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, during a joint meeting Friday of leaders of the Indonesian Military and the National Police, called the torture incident “minor.”

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