In a statement that may hurt his image as a champion of democracy, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Friday that a vicious torture incident in Papua that triggered global outrage was “a minor incident”.
“Just because of a minor incident perpetrated by three soldiers, I have to explain the incident to the world, the UN, the EU [European Union] and the US,” Yudhoyono told a joint meeting of leaders of the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the National Police.
He said that although the incident was “small”, it made world headlines. “My time was spent explaining and handling the [fallout] of the problem, which I believe was only a minor incident as there have been no gross [rights] violations by the TNI or National Police since 2004.”
The President was referring to a videotaped incident in which three soldiers from the Cendrawasih Military Command in Jayapura, Papua, tortured two Papuans accused of being members of the secessionist Free Papua Movement (OPM).
The defendants have been courtmartialed, where they face charges not of torture, but of failing to obey orders, and face only nine months to a year in a military prison, the Military Court in Jayapura was told Thursday.
Prosecutors are seeking a oneyear sentence for Second Sgt. Irwan Riskyanto minus time served prior to the hearing. They are also seeking sentences of 10 months and nine months for First Pvt. Yakson Agu and First Pvt. Thamrin Mahagiri, respectively.
Yudhoyono called for the incident to be resolved so it would not damage the already tainted image of the TNI, which has struggled to distance itself from a dark past.
The President also called on the TNI to better educate soldiers on humanitarian laws and the Geneva Convention to stop incidents of human rights violations.
Previously, New York-based Human Rights Watch blasted the prosecution of the three soldiers, who are being tried in a military court notorious for its lenient sentences and lack of independence.
Al Araf, the program director at Indonesia Human Rights Monitor (Imparsial), said that instead of emphasizing the absence of gross rights violations since being elected, the President should acknowledge that human rights continue to be violated more than a decade after the downfall of strongman Soeharto.
“An incident is defined as gross human rights violation if it is systematic, widespread and causes civilian casualties. Perhaps we have yet to see such gross violations, but there are many cases across the country that the government fails to prevent,” he said.
He added that the government also failed to address the suppression on freedom of expression and gathering, citing a rally by the hard-line Islam Defenders Front (FPI) to disrupt an LGBT film festival at the Goethe Institute.
Apart from the Papua incident, soldiers found to have perpetrated numerous other rights violations also faced light sentences. In Banda Aceh, First Lt. Faizal Amin of the Simeulue military command was sentenced to 10 months in prison on Thursday for assaulting a journalist.