Did members of the Indonesian military storm a prison, murder inmates?

Indonesia's tradition of stonewalling civilian investigation of military misbehavior could stand in the way of confirming or dispelling the allegations.

On March 23, a group of 17 focused, heavily-armed men broke into an Indonesian prison in the Central Javanese city of Yogykarta and with minimal interference from the guards there, identified and executed four of the inmates.

Since the killings, speculation in the press and from Indonesian human rights activists have focused on the Indonesian military's Special Forces Command, or Kopassus, an elite unit that for more than 20 years has been the focus of persistent allegations of human rights abuses (here's a 2000 story of mine looking into the group's history and reputation). 

In the dark old days of the Soeharto-era, Kopassus acted as something between shock-troops and regime protectors, accused of aggressive hunter-killer tactics against separatist supporters in places like Aceh in North Sumatra and of being a law unto themselves almost anywhere they went.

That Kopassus is still a prime suspect when abuse is suspected is a sign that for as much as has changed here, and often for the better, much also remains the same.

The four men murdered in prison had been detained on suspicion of killing a Kopassus member, and since the assault, few witnesses from among the guards or inmates at the prison have been willing to come forward. While guns are obtainable in Indonesia, they're also tightly controlled, and a 17-man assault by people not connected to the military is almost unheard of.

Military abuse?

The military hasn't been exactly forthcoming, either. Last week, an attempt by the semi-official National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) to visit the Kopassus Group 2 headquarters in the nearby city of Suryakarta was rebuked. To be sure, this case may prove a turning point: After a few days of stonewalling from senior officers, who insisted no soldiers were involved, the military has appeared willing to acknowledge some of its own may have been behind the attack.

On Friday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Pramono Edhie Wibowo told reporters here that "preliminary findings show that some soldiers who were on duty in Central Java were involved in this incident." On Monday, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono insisted on a full and transparent investigation "to bring justice to anyone involved."

But investigation into Indonesian military abuses in the past have had a history of petering out inconclusively as memories and outrage fades.

"We don’t know about the mechanism for the investigation of Kopassus, yet, because this is the first time Komnas HAM has worked on a case involving the TNI [Indonesia's armed forces]. We will meet Kopassus’ request for us to get permission from Army headquarters before we proceed,” National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) Chair Siti Noor Laila told The Jakarta Post on Sunday.

Not the first time 

While on the one hand it's good news that civilian oversight is getting involved, finally, in stripping away the special status of misbehaving soldiers, her comments are mostly troubling. For one thing, she's got her facts wrong. In 1999, Komnas HAM set up in an investigating team to look into human rights abuses in East Timor at the time of its vote for independence from Indonesia. It found substantial evidence of the Indonesian military's human rights abuse as a form of punishment for the territory's vote for independence. 

The human rights commission has also investigated allegations of military abuses in Papua, an Indonesian territory on the western half of New Guinea where independence sentiment is strong. In 2009, the body investigated the possible involvement of Gen. (Ret.) Muchdi Puwohadipranjono in ordering the murder of Munir, a crusading human rights activist who was poisoned on a flight between Jakarta and Singapore in 2004.

Munir had alleged that Gen. Muchdi has been involved in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Indonesian democracy activists in 1997 and early 1998, shortly before an economic collapse sparked an uprising that ended the reign of President Soeharto, the US-backed autocrat who had led Indonesia for 32 years. During his time in power, the Indonesian military received extensive US military training and equipment. 

Since Soeharto's fall, Indonesia has moved in a much more democratic direction. But grappling with the habits of the past – particularly military impunity for human rights abuses – has meant the country has made only halting progress. 

Indonesia's military continues to exert major influence in Indonesian politics, particularly at the local level. Regional military commands are seeded throughout provincial capitals in Indonesia, and senior officers retain extensive business interests. Enlisted men frequently moonlight as bouncers in nightclubs or hired-muscle and it's a safe bet that the initial killing that sparked the prison raid was connected to some kind of extracurricular business involving the soldier.

Munir was a rail-thin, deeply intense man who ignored years of threats against his safety to carry out the work of Kontras, a human rights group for disappeared activists he funded.

In 2000, four years before his murder, he told me the following about Kopassus:

"Their method was terror, and it was being employed in the service of Suharto," says Munir, a lawyer who runs the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence. "But efforts to find justice are running up against the tradition of military impunity."

After Soeharto was forced from power in 1998, 11 Kopassus members were found guilty of kidnapping and torturing nine democracy activists. An end to impunity? The soldiers received 22 months in jail. The unit's commanding officer at the time, Prabowo Subianto, then a son-in-law of Soeharto's (he has since divorced) was given an honorable discharge.

Mr. Prabowo, who spent some years abroad working on oil-for-food deals with Iraq (then under UN sanctions) and living in Jordan at the invitation of his friend King Abdullah, is now back and a major political player in Indonesia again. He leads the Great Indonesia Movement party, and is running to replace President Yudhoyono when the current leader is term-limited out next year. Some early polling has placed him among the front-runners.

Will the prison attack be the start of finally achieving Munir's dream, almost a decade since his death?

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