Pizaro Gozali Idrus, Jakarta – Indonesian security forces may have committed crimes against humanity during counter-insurgency operations in the restive Papua region in 2021, a Germany-based human rights group said in a report released Thursday.
Security forces used helicopters, spy drones, mortar grenades and heavy machine guns to attack eight indigenous villages, forcing more than 2,000 people to flee their homes in Kiwirok district during a series of raids between September and October 2021, Human Rights Monitor (HRM) said in the report.
The findings have been challenged by an Indonesian military spokesman, who accused separatist rebels of burning buildings and torturing civilians. A presidential advisor also cast doubts on the accuracy of the report.
The report argued that the security operations in Kiwirok amounted to crimes against humanity under international law, as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It cited evidence of extermination and deportation or forcible transfer of population, two of the eleven acts that constitute crimes against humanity.
The HRM report said that although no direct civilian deaths were caused by the attacks, at least 72 people displaced by the violence had died because of hypothermia, malnutrition, and disease as a result of living in "subhuman" conditions.
It identified 206 buildings that were destroyed during the raids, including homes and public buildings such as churches and schools.
"The findings indicate that the aerial and ground attacks were widespread and systematic, and targeted the indigenous civilian population in Kiwirok," the group said.
HRM said its report, titled "Destroy them first... discuss human rights later," was based on open-source investigations, including the use of satellite imagery and metadata analysis, and witness testimonies from Kiwirok.
The Reuters news agency reported last year that the shells bought for Indonesia's State Intelligence Agency (BIN) were converted to be air-dropped and used in attacks on the villages in Kiwirok.
BIN, a civilian agency under the direct authority of the president, is barred from functioning as an armed force and can only procure weapons to arm its personnel.
The October 2021 counter-insurgency operations were precipitated by events of a month earlier, when suspected rebels set fire to public buildings, including a health clinic and an elementary school in Kiwirok, after government forces killed an insurgent during a gunfight.
According to Reuters, which cited a report by Conflict Armament Research, a London-based group, some of the almost 2,500 Serbia-made 81 mm mortar shells bought for BIN in 2021 were used in the security operation in the eight Papuan villages.
The alleged purchase was not disclosed to the parliamentary committee that approves its budget, Reuters reported, citing three unnamed lawmakers. The military denied using mortar rounds on villages.
The Indonesian government restricts access for human rights organizations, foreign journalists, and international observers to Papua, making information from the region often difficult to verify.
The HRM report urged the Indonesian government to allow an independent investigation by the National Human Rights Commission into the allegations of serious human rights violations in Kiwirok.
The report also called on the international community to take action to ensure accountability and justice.
A spokesman for the Indonesian military, Col. Julius Widjojono, denied that security forces were involved in any human rights abuses in Kiwirok. He claimed that it was an armed rebel group that burned buildings and shot civilians in an attempt to blame security forces.
"Our operations are based on soft and smart approaches. We would never burn buildings, especially places of worship. The facts show that it is [the rebels] who have engaged in burnings, destruction and torture," he said.
Theo Litaay, a member of the Presidential Staff Office, questioned the veracity of the HRM report.
"The reports that Human Rights Monitor received were usually from NGOs. They need to be verified for accuracy. The government's position is to respect human rights of all people in Papua," he told BenarNews.
Poorly armed Papuan fighters – collectively known as the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) – have battled Indonesia since the early 1960s, when it took control of the remote mountainous region from the Dutch.
Documented and alleged human rights abuses by government forces have fueled resentment among Papuans, who are culturally and ethnically distinct from the rest of Indonesia.
Rebels have become more aggressive in carrying out attacks since December 2018, when members of the TPNPB killed at least 19 road workers in the Nduga regency.
In the latest violence, three civilians were found dead with gunshot wounds in the highland district of Nduga on Wednesday after their truck was stopped by unknown gunmen, said Papua police spokesman Ignatius Benny Ady Prabowo.
Benny said police suspected that they were killed by the rebels.