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Monday, November 02, 2009

No US visa for 2 Indonesian defence officials

JAKARTA, Oct 30 — Weeks into his second term, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been given another embarrassing reminder that the alleged past misdeeds of the army he once served remain a major stumbling block in Indonesia’s efforts to restore full military ties with the United States.

The Straits Times has learnt that Defence Ministry secretary-general Syafrie Syamsuddin and Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) commander Pramono Edhie Wibowo have had their US visa applications either turned down or put on hold.

Lieutenant-General Syafrie was unable to accompany Dr Yudhoyono’s delegation to the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh last month, and Major-General Wibowo has apparently been prevented from giving a closed-door presentation to the Pentagon during a planned visit to Washington this week.

A former special forces intelligence officer, Lt-Gen Syafrie is widely tipped to become Cabinet Secretary in place of Sudhi Silalahi, who was promoted to State Secretary in the new ministerial line-up Dr Yudhoyono announced last week.

But even more embarrassing for the President is that Maj-Gen Wibowo, another career special forces officer, is his brother-in-law - and apparently on track to become armed forces commander near the end of the President’s five-year term.

It was hoped that Maj-Gen Wibowo’s unblemished record would allow him to make the case with defence and congressional leaders that Kopassus has reformed and that it should be allowed to resume exercises with the US Special Forces.

Although officials insist that the visa ban is not final, Lt-Gen Syafrie, 56, is in a different category because of allegations surrounding the November 1991 churchyard massacre in Dili and the bloody May 1998 riots that preceded president Suharto’s fall from power.

US Embassy spokesman Paul Belmont declined to comment on the issue, saying it was against US law to discuss individual visa cases.

Lt-Gen Syafrie is a 1974 military academy classmate of vice-presidential candidate and former Suharto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, who is banned from the US for his role in the kidnapping and torture of pro-democracy activists in 1997-1998.

Prabowo, a retired general, was cashiered in late 1998 after taking responsibility for the kidnappings before a closed-door military honour council. It was a move that hardly satisfied human rights groups, but allowed then armed forces chief General Wiranto to rid himself of a rival.

Although Lt-Gen Syafrie has never been charged with a crime, that has little bearing on an ongoing US State Department investigation to determine whether the former Jakarta regional commander should be allowed a visa.

US officials insist there is no actual blacklist carrying the names of Indonesian officers accused of human rights abuses, the vast majority of whom have never seen the inside of an interrogation room - let alone a courtroom.

The Indonesian government has sent a letter to the State Department defending Lt-Gen Syafrie’s service record, saying that he was not on duty when soldiers opened fire on East Timorese mourners at Dili’s Santa Cruz cemetery in 1991.

It also pointed out that a special parliamentary commission had cleared him of responsibility for the deadly shooting of four students at Trisakti University on May 12, 1998 — the event which led to the two days of rioting in central Jakarta. The government of then President BJ Habibie 16 months later absolved him of any accountability or legal responsibility for the violence.

Despite Indonesia’s rapid strides towards democratisation, congressional foes like US Senator Patrick Leahy continue to insist that those accused of crimes against humanity should be brought to justice before the US considers restoring military ties to the way they once were.

Most attention centres on officers indicted by the United Nations Serious Crimes Unit for alleged human rights abuses committed during the bloody military-led militia rampage before and after the 1999 East Timor referendum.

But other generals, particularly those who have worn Kopassus’ red beret, remain in the firing line as well for their alleged roles in a slew of additional unresolved human rights cases.

Even if Lt-Gen Syafrie is declared ineligible for a visa, US officials say he can still be granted a waiver for so-called “policy reasons”, similar to those given to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. — The Straits Times


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