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Supporting Accountability, Not Separatism In Indonesia

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What do U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Patrick Leahy, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have in common? Their names appear among 248 foreign politicians, government officials, academics and journalists the Indonesian military views as "supporters of Papuan separatists."

The list appears among 500 pages of Indonesian military documents, which recently came to light, that provide an insider view of the military's surveillance operations in Papua. the country's easternmost province.

Most of the documents concern the activities of Indonesia's Special Forces, or Kopassus. The U.S. should be paying close attention since a year ago it restored full military ties with Kopassus, which had been suspended for years because of the force's notorious human rights record.

Officially, Kopassus operates in Papua to monitor and suppress the Papuan separatist movement, the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or OPM), which has been engaged in an armed struggle against the Indonesian government since the 1960s. The documents show, however, that the focus of Indonesian military operations in Papua goes far beyond the roughly 1,000 poorly armed rebels and includes a broad swathe of Papuan political, traditional, and religious leaders, and civil society groups who are spied on by a vast network of Papuan informants.

The documents show that the military believes it has more to fear from peaceful "political separatist" activity than from armed separatists. A 2007 Kopassus report states, "Current political activity in Papua is very dangerous compared to the activities of Papuan armed groups because their access already reaches abroad."

The problem, as the documents make clear, is that pretty much anyone who challenges authority is automatically deemed a separatist. A couple of years ago I met a Papuan family from Jayapura, the provincial capital, who were pro-Indonesia. They told me how their son had taken a romantic stroll on a nearby beach with his girlfriend when they were set upon by eight naval officers, who beat him up and forced the pair to engage in humiliating sexual acts. The family tried to complain to the police and to the naval base to no avail. The youth's cousin told me, "I am a Papuan woman and an Indonesian citizen. We are not separatists, but whenever anyone tries to stand up for their rights, they are called separatists - that's how they silence us."

The reports indicate that Kopassus believes nongovernmental organizations primarily work to discredit the Indonesian government and the armed forces by using the "human rights issue" to garner international condemnation of Indonesia's military presence in Papua and to promote Papuan independence.

Human Rights Watch has long documented violations by Indonesian security forces in Papua. For years, the military denied the reports of human rights violations in Papua, even when faced with overwhelming evidence. This lack of accountability gives security forces a green light to commit abuses against the local population. However, the recent growth in cell phone video is making it more difficult to deny abuses.

Last year, a film uploaded to YouTube showed soldiers brutally torturing two farmers in Papua, kicking them, threatening one with a knife to his face, and repeatedly jabbing the other in the genitals with burning wood. A prolonged international outcry finally forced the military to take action. In the end, three soldiers got light sentences for "disobeying orders" rather than torture. It is unclear whether the military has discharged any of them. Two months earlier, soldiers from the same battalion shot and killed Rev. Kinderman Gire on the suspicion he was a separatist. At the trial, the defendants claimed Gire led them to believe he was a member of OPM and tried to grab a rifle from one of them, who then shot him in the chest. They dumped the body in a river, after trying to cut off his head. Last week a military tribunal convicted three soldiers, again only for "disobeying orders," and sentenced them to six, seven and fifteen months in prison.

Indonesia's military has heralded such light sentences for torture and killing as "appropriate." Perhaps this is not surprising given a U.S. Defense Department official characterized the prosecution of the video torture case as "progress."

Last year, when resuming full military ties, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates described how Indonesia's defense minister "publicly pledged to protect human rights and advance human rights accountability and committed to suspend from active duty military officials credibly accused of human rights abuses, remove from military service any member convicted of such abuses, and cooperate with the prosecution of any members of the military who have violated human rights."

The revelations in the military documents don't appear to have changed any thinking inside the Indonesian armed forces. Responding to recent articles about the documents, an Indonesian military spokesman told the Jakarta Post: "There is no such thing as a repressive or militant approach. What we do is always a welfare approach, where we help Papuans have better lives."

And the old pattern of military denials continues. Where individual cases garner international attention, the Indonesian military has understood that all it needs to do to continue receiving U.S. military funding is to slap soldiers on the wrist for "disobeying orders" rather than prosecute them for serious crimes. The U.S. has conveyed multiple messages of disappointment to the Indonesian government and military on individual cases such as the video torture trial. But U.S. unwillingness to impose significant consequences, such as suspending new military cooperation, tells the Indonesians and others that the U.S. doesn't insist on sticking to its standards.

The U.S. should call on the Indonesian government to fully disclose all military tribunal cases involving alleged abuses against civilians, including prosecutions for "disobeying orders," and provide transcripts to the public. Until the Indonesian government re-examines these cases, in line with the U.S. Leahy law, which prevents the U.S. from cooperating with abusive military units, the U.S. government should not participate in joint endeavors with military personnel or units working in Papua. The U.S. should also call on Indonesia's military to stop viewing peaceful political activists as threats to national security and stop spying on them.

Both the U.S. and Indonesia should recognize that people like Senator Leahy, who are named in the Papua military documents, were not seeking to challenge Indonesian sovereignty, but simply to defend the international standards for accountability that the Indonesian military is undermining.

Elaine Pearson is the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Follow Elaine Pearson on Twitter.