Washington. The US military is concerned over the light jail sentences given to Indonesian troops caught on video torturing men in the restive eastern region of Papua but see the trial as a sign of “progress,” a senior official said Tuesday.
Robert Scher, Defense Department deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Southeast Asia, also said the quick and “transparent” trial reflects Jakarta’s progress in tackling rights abuses by its military forces.
The United States restored ties with Indonesian special forces last year in recognition of military reforms since the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998 and Jakarta’s commitment to investigate and prosecute any future abuses.
On Jan. 24, three Indonesian soldiers were sentenced for up to 10 months after a video emerged showing troops burning the genitals of a Papuan man and drawing a knife across another. They were charged with indiscipline, not torture.
Rights groups say the military tribunal was a sham and the light sentences throw doubt over Indonesia’s commitment to reform.
By law, the United States must cease training for a foreign military unit if it has evidence the unit has committed gross rights violations, unless the country’s government is taking effective measures to bring the individuals responsible to justice.
According to Human Rights Watch, four other soldiers from the same Indonesian battalion who were also captured on video in 2010 kicking and beating villagers in Papua were earlier sentenced to five to seven months. Their convictions are on appeal.
In both cases, the troops belong to the Indonesian Army Strategic Reserve Command, or Kostrad.
Scher described Indonesia as a “critically important country” and “emerging global player.”
He was responding to questions after delivering a speech at Washington’s Heritage Foundation think tank about stepped-up U.S. engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Indonesia is a leading partner. Washington’s renewed embrace of ASEAN is seen as a strategy for counteracting China’s growing economic and military clout in east Asia.
“We do see that there was progress, that this was a trial that was conducted quickly,” Scher said of the prosecutions of soldiers. “The trial was open and the sentences were handed down. This is not something that one could imagine happening just a few years ago.”
“There’s still a lot to be done. We are concerned by the sentences, and we are continuing to talk with the government in Indonesia about this case,” he said, without elaborating.
The Defense Department said it currently has no specific engagement plan with Kostrad, but Kostrad personnel occasionally participate in peacekeeping-related exercises and routinely attend US Army professional military education courses.
A poorly armed Papuan separatist movement has battled for independence from Indonesia for almost 50 years. Rights groups say tens of thousands of people have died as a result of Indonesian military action there.