Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesian president, has instructed the military chief to ensure swift justice after the video posted online appeared to show soldiers torturing unarmed Papuan men in the country’s highly militarised easternmost province.
Mr Yudhoyono commented on the sensitive subject as his office prepared for a spate of visits by high-profile foreign dignitaries, beginning with Julia Gillard, Australian prime minister, on Tuesday and Barack Obama, US president, next week.
The video, posted online by the Asian Human Rights Commission last month, shows men in Indonesian military-issue clothing burning the genitals of prisoners, threatening them with knives and placing plastic bags over their heads in an apparent attempt to extract information.
The gruesome footage was allegedly recorded in the Puncak Jaya area of Papua, in October. Some of the prisoners were almost naked as they were beaten on the ground. Their fate is unknown, the commission said.
Mr Yudhoyono responded on Monday to outrage expressed by human rights organisations, possibly seeking to head off uneasy questions during the Gillard and Obama visits.
Newspaper editorials have called for diplomatic pressure on Jakarta but Mr Yudhoyono said there “is no need to press Indonesia”.
“Indonesia has conducted the investigation and is ready for trial or whatever it takes to uphold justice and discipline.”
The case is ready to be weighed by a military tribunal, which will consider criminal charges and disciplinary action, Mr Yudhoyono said. Officials declined to say if suspects were in custody.
“The incident was certainly not our policy, not state policy, not government policy, and things like that have happened in many countries . . . including in Afghanistan and Iraq,” the president said in the televised comments.
Indonesia had a poor human rights record during the brutal, 32-year dictatorship of the late dictator Suharto, when hundreds of thousands of political opponents were executed, imprisoned and abducted.
But Indonesia has flourished as a democracy since Suharto’s removal by a popular uprising in 1998. Military reforms prompted the US to end a ban on military assistance.
Indonesia’s separatist wars in the autonomous region of Aceh and independent East Timor, which together left more than 200,000 dead, are fading into history.
Yet Indonesia’s leaders remain extremely sensitive about Papua, where a tiny insurrection has been waged since the region was handed to Indonesia in 1969 under a UN-sponsored process rejected as illegitimate by many Papuans.
It is illegal to fly separatist flags and suspected insurgents, who attack remote military outposts with stolen guns or bows and arrows, kill several soldiers a year and are themselves often shot dead. Foreign aid workers and journalists are rarely granted permission to work in Papua.
Suspected separatists are routinely tortured, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have said. Similar circumstances are reported in the central Indonesian Maluku islands, where members of another small, independence-seeking group are serving long jail terms for flying their banned flag in front of Mr Yudhoyono.
“The reality that is often not understood by the world, is there are separatist movements in Papua . . . so it is legitimate for Indonesia to deploy our soldiers to guard sovereignty,” he said.
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