July 22, 2010 - The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) today condemned the Obama administration's decision to resume engagement with Indonesia's notorious Kopassus special forces.
"Slipping back into bed with Kopassus is a betrayal of the brutal unit's many victims in Timor-Leste, West Papua and throughout Indonesia. It will lead to more people to suffer abuses," said John M. Miller, National Coordinator of ETAN. "Working with Kopassus, which remain unrepentant about its long history of terrorizing civilians, will undermine efforts to achieve justice and accountability for human rights crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste (East Timor)."
"For years, the U.S. military provided training and other assistance to Kopassus, and when the U.S. was most involved Kopassus crimes were at their worst. While this assistance improved the Indonesian military's deadly skills, it did nothing to improve its behavior," Miller added.
U.S. officials, speaking to the New York Times, distinguished between soldiers who were "only implicated, not convicted' in human rights crimes. Administration officials have said that some Kopassus soldiers convicted of crimes no longer served with the unit, however many of them remain on active duty, including Lt. Col. Tri Hartomo, convicted by a military court of the murder of Papuan leader Theys Eluay in 2001.
The official American Forces Press Service wrote that a "senior defense official said Indonesia has pledged that any Kopassus member who is credibly accused of a human rights violation will be suspended pending an investigation, will be tried in a civilian court, and will be removed from the unit if convicted." Legislation transferring members of military to civilian courts for trials has yet to pass.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced in Jakarta that the U.S. "will begin a gradual, limited program of security cooperation activities" with Kopassus. U.S. officials told the media that "there would be no immediate military training," However, Gates did not say exactly what criteria will be used to decide if "to expand upon these initial steps [which] will depend upon continued implementation of reforms within Kopassus" and the TNI.
Engagement with Kopassus has been opposed by human rights and victims associations in Indonesia, Timor-Leste and internationally. It has been debated within the Obama administration and in Congress.
In May 2010, 13 senior members of Congress wrote the Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Clinton concerning plans to cooperate with Kopassus. The letter called for "a reliable vetting process critical... for identifying Kopassus officials who have violated human rights" and said "the transfer of jurisdiction over human rights crimes committed by members of the military to civilian courts should be a pre-condition for engagement with Kopassus." Legislation to transfer members of the military to civilian courts has long been stalled. Trials of some soldiers before ad-hoc human rights courts, such as on East Timor, have resulted in acquittals.
Kopassus troops have been implicated in a range of human rights violations and war crimes in Aceh, West Papua, Timor-Leste and elsewhere. Although a few special forces soldiers have been convicted of the kidnapping of activists prior to the fall of the Suharto dictatorship and the 2001 murder of Theys Eluay, the perpetrators of the vast majority of human rights crimes continue to evade prosecution. Kopassus and other troops indicted by UN-backed prosecutors in Timor-Leste for crimes committed in 1999 during Timor's independence referendum remain at large.
The leaders of Kopassus have consistently rejected calls to hold it accountable. In April 2010 at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the unit's founding, Kopassus commander Maj. Gen. Lodewijk Paulus called allegations of past rights violations a "psychological burden." He told The Jakarta Globe "Honestly, it has become a problem and people just keep harping on them. It's not fair."
Lt. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, who served with Kopassus and is accused of human rights violations in East Timor and elsewhere, remains as deputy defense minister. His position is being challenged in court by victims of human rights violations in the 1998 Jakarta riots and the 1997/1998 kidnapping of student and political activists.