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Australian-funded soldiers policing West Papuan activists

Direct Action - August 14, 2012

James Balowski, Jakarta – The killing of a leading pro-independence activist in West Papua during a raid reportedly led by members of the Australian-funded and -trained counter-terrorism unit Detachment 88 (Densus 88) raises serious questions about how Australian workers' tax money is being used in Indonesia.

West Papua National Committee (KNPB) deputy chairperson Mako Tabuni was shot dead near the provincial capital Jayapura on June 14, causing rioting and a security crackdown. Police claimed Tabuni resisted arrest and was shot trying to escape.

Eyewitness accounts and an investigation by the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) cast serious doubts on the police version of events. Kontras executive coordinator Haris Azhar said that, according to its findings, three cars approached Tabuni and fired at him directly, in an incident bearing all the hallmarks of a police hit.

According to the independent Australian-based West Papua Media (WPM), Tabuni was shot by police as they stormed an area outside student dormitories at the Cenderawasih University. WPM said that it confirmed independently that the Densus 88 troops were in command of the raid. Tabuni was campaigning for an investigation into a spate of mysterious shootings in May and June that left at least 16 dead. Police subsequently accused Tabuni and the KNPB of being behind the violence.

Waning threat

Densus 88 was created in 2003, supposedly in response to the 2002 Bali bombings. It is equipped and trained in large part by the US and Australia, which provide training in communications interception, close combat, forensic sciences, surveillance and intelligence gathering and analysis. It has a facility at the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation, set up in 2004 with almost $40 million of Australian funding. According to the centre's website, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) still run most of the seminars. Densus 88 also benefits from $16 million in annual funding allocated to the AFP to combat terrorism in South-East Asia. It has around 400 members attached to its command in Jakarta and hundreds more in the country's 33 provinces.

The threat of major terrorist attacks in Indonesia began to wane after the second Bali bombing in 2005, with only minor incidents occurring, such as the bombing of a market in Central Sulawesi and ambushes of law enforcers in Maluku. It was not until 2009 that Indonesia suffered another major attack, when two suicide bombs were detonated at the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta.

Following the death of major terrorism suspects Noordin M. Top in 2009 and Dulmatin in 2010, and with figures such as Jemaah Islamiyah spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir behind bars, Densus 88 stepped up its engagement in non-terrorism issues. According to Jakarta Globe journalist Nivell Rayda – who has been investigating Densus 88 – there has been a marked shift toward policing "separatism" instead of terrorism.

"Detachment 88 being somewhat of an elite unit, being funded and trained by foreign countries... they just lay dormant – their resources, their equipment and their tactical abilities, and investigation techniques just lying dormant for years", Rayda told the Australian independent magazine New Matilda on March 5.

"In 2009 we had another major attack, but since then we've arrested nearly all the major players and terrorism suspects... there haven't really been any major terrorism events taking shape, and... the pattern seems to repeat itself: Detachment 88 has been engaging once more in non-terrorism issues, including separatism", he said.

Widespread abuses

Unlike West Papua, where foreign journalists are restricted from reporting freely and humanitarian organisations such as the International Red Cross were ordered out in 2009, Densus 88's operations in the Maluku islands of eastern Indonesia have come under close scrutiny.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have reported widespread and institutionalised torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners by Densus 88 there, where a pro-independence movement has existed since 1950.

A report by HRW in June 2010, based on more than 50 interviews with political prisoners between December 2008 and May 2010, detailed the arrest and prosecution of activists for peacefully raising banned symbols, such as the Papuan Morning Star and the South Maluku independence flag. The report described the treatment of activists during their detention, especially by Densus 88 in the Maluku capital of Ambon, noting that allegations of torture by Densus 88 have been consistent and detailed.

In August 2010, Amnesty warned that activists arrested by Densus 88 in Ambon ahead of a planned protest during a visit by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono were at serious risk of torture. Amnesty noted that in June 2007, 22 activists in Maluku were arrested by Densus 88 and beaten, forced to crawl on their stomachs over hot asphalt, whipped with an electric cable and had billiard balls forced into their mouths in an attempt to force them to confess.

In 2008 the US quietly instituted a training ban on Densus 88 members involved in the 2007 abuses in Maluku. A spokesperson for the US Embassy in Jakarta, Paul Belmont, said the ban remained in place and had been extended to new members of the unit associated with the abuses in August 2010. "We have been critical of alleged human rights abuses against separatists, in particular in Papua and Maluku", Belmont told the Sydney Morning Herald in September 2010.

While the Australian government said it was "aware and concerned", an embassy official denied that it was investigating the allegations. "An embassy officer visited Maluku recently as part of a regular program of provincial visits", a spokesperson told the Globe in September 2010. "In that context, publicly available reports of allegations against the Maluku unit were raised with local government officials and NGOs. Any investigation is a matter for Indonesian authorities."

West Papua

Indonesian officials have neither denied nor confirmed Densus 88's involvement in Tabuni's killing, and have made conflicting statements about the unit's operations in West Papua. On June 16 Tempo Interactive quoted a senior official as saying the unit would be sent to reinforce military and police in Papua.

Indonesia Police Watch (IPW) said this would worsen the conflict. "Due to the escalating tension in Papua, there are some efforts now by some elites in the national police to intensify the role of Densus 88 in the land of Cenderawasih [West Papua]", IPW chairperson Neta S. Pane told the Globe on June 16.

The national police denied Densus 88 would be sent to Papua. "Densus will be deployed if terrorism occurred there", national police spokesperson Saud Usman Nasution – who is a former Densus 88 chief – told the June 20 Jakarta Post. This contradicts an earlier statement by Nasution to the Globe confirming that Densus 88 officers were already in Papua and justifying their presence.

Media reports suggest that the unit has been operating in Papua since 2009. According to the Globe, in 2009 Densus 88 was involved in the arrest of 15 people in connection with a series of attacks in the vicinity of the Freeport Indonesia gold and copper mine in Timika, which left three dead and dozens injured, including Australian national Drew Grant, killed in an ambush on July 11, 2009.

The following day, assailants opened fire on vehicles at the mine carrying security officers. National police spokesperson Brigadier General Sulistyo Ishak confirmed there had been an exchange of fire, saying police had deployed reinforcements. "After the incident, our counter-terror unit, Densus 88, engaged in a skirmish with an unknown number of gunmen", Ishak told the state news agency Antara. National police chief General Bambang Hendarso Danuri told the Jakarta Post that 60 additional personnel – including Densus 88 officers – had been sent to Papua.

Densus 88's presence in Papua was confirmed by the Herald in a June 2010 interview with Brigadier General Tito Karnavian, the former commander of Densus 88 and planned replacement of the current Papua police chief. Karnavian said that the unit had a legitimate role in countering separatism and would remain in Papua, pointing to the killing of Grant as evidence that separatists were using "tactics of terror". "Any group using violence against civilians must be seen as a terrorist group. It's not just Islamic groups", he told the Herald.

Densus 88 members were sent to Papua in August last year after four people died in Nafri, near Jayapura, in an ambush by alleged armed separatists. "We have dispatched crime scene investigators and Densus 88 officers to Nafri to help Papua police hunt for the perpetrators", police spokesperson Inspector General Anton Bachrul Alam told the Globe in August 2011.

According to witnesses and a video posted on the WPM website, Densus 88 also took part in an attack on the Third Papuan People's Congress in Abepura on October 19 last year, in which at least six people were killed, scores wounded and around 300 arrested.

In November 2011, Densus 88 officers reportedly raided homes in Paniai regency during a stand-off with armed separatists. "The police officers in Paniai were different from Brimob [paramilitary police], although police say they were Brimob", Paniai priest Oktovianus Pekei told the Globe on March 5. "These officers wore ski masks and heavy combat gear and helmets. They also carried sophisticated weaponry and state-of-the art equipment."

In August it was reported that Densus 88 joined the local police in Nafri to investigate the shooting of a public minivan. The Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy said 15 people were arrested – including two under-age-girls – after the police stormed the Horas Skyline village, kicking, beating and threatening local residents with pointed guns. All but two suspects were later released for lack of evidence.

Elaine Pearson, the deputy director of HRW's Asia division, said she is deeply troubled by Densus 88's presence in Papua. "There is a long history of counterterrorism forces in Papua conflating nonviolent political expression with criminal activity, and arresting political activists on dubious treason charges", she told the Globe on March 5. "Densus 88 has an appalling human rights record, and without serious government oversight and with continued restrictions on access to Papua, any abuses by the force are likely to go unchecked", she added.

'Not up to our standard'

Coinciding with the release in October 2010 of a graphic video showing two Papuans being tortured by Indonesian soldiers, the head of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs, Dennis Richardson, admitted that the conduct of Indonesia's security agencies was sometimes "not up to our standard". Richardson said Canberra would continue to cooperate with the agencies because of the overriding objective of protecting Australian lives amid a continuing terrorist threat in Indonesia.

"In working with Indonesian agencies you can get tension between the responsibility you think you owe to your own citizens... and the conduct of some Indonesian agencies that are not up to our standard", he told the Herald. "We make representations we think we should and condemn human rights abuses."

A former head of ASIO, Richardson made the comment at a Senate hearing after being asked about alleged abuses of activists in Maluku. When asked whether Australia, like the US, had banned cooperation with Densus 88 members who served in Ambon, Richardson said they had not.

Reiterating Canberra's recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua, Australian embassy spokesperson Ray Marcelo said that Australia does not support Densus 88's involvement in non-terrorism activities. "The sole focus of Australian engagement with Densus 88 is in combating terrorism", he told the Globe on March 5. "Australia does not provide any support to Densus 88 or any other unit in relation to any activities directed at combating separatist groups."