Philip Shenon, Washington – Indonesia's new president, B.J. Habibie, has appointed as a senior military adviser a retired army general who was ordered by a US court to pay millions of dollars in damages for his involvement in a 1991 massacre in which 270 people were estimated to have been killed.
The appointment of the retired officer, Lt. Gen. Sintong Panjaitan, could result in early strains in the relationship between the United States and Habibie, who came to office last month with promises of an improvement in Indonesia's human rights record and in its ties with Washington.
Panjaitan oversaw troops who carried out the November 1991 massacre in East Timor, the former Portuguese colony that was invaded by Indonesia in the 1970s and annexed despite international protests.
In 1994 Panjaitan was ordered by a US District Court judge in Boston to pay $14 million in damages to the mother of a 20-year-old New Zealand man who was among those killed. The suit was filed in Boston by human rights activists after Panjaitan moved there for studies at Boston University.
The general, who was removed from his military post after the massacre, never appeared in court to answer the charges and returned home to Indonesia in 1992 to join the staff of Habibie, who was then technology minister. According to news reports in Indonesia, Panjaitan has had a long association with Habibie and has been appointed to the post of "expert on security and defense."
Michael Ratner, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based group that brought the case against Panjaitan, said his appointment by Habibie "does not bode well for East Timor or for the human rights situation in Indonesia – it indicates business as usual." Ratner said the United States should "absolutely pressure Indonesia to get rid of this guy – the idea that a new government in Indonesia that claims to be turning over a new leaf would have this guy as its military adviser is pretty outrageous."
The State Department and the Indonesian Embassy in Washington had no immediate comment on the appointment. A State Department official, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said the department was aware that the general "is presently an adviser to Habibie and has been an adviser for some time."
The Boston lawsuit against the general was brought on behalf of the mother of Kamal Bamadhaj, a university student from New Zealand who was traveling through East Timor and was killed by Indonesian soldiers when he became caught up in the graveyard demonstration. Video of the massacre was smuggled out of Indonesia and showed soldiers opening fire on unarmed demonstrators without provocation.