Human rights groups have condemned a US government decision to go ahead with the sale of eight Apache attack helicopters to Indonesia, saying they are offensive weapons likely to be employed in counterinsurgency operations in West Papua.

The US$500 million deal – the largest since Washington lifted its embargo on selling lethal arms to Indonesia in 2005 – was announced by US secretary of defense Chuck Hagel and will include pilot training, radar technologies and maintenance.

 “Providing Indonesia these world-class helicopters is an example of our commitment to help build Indonesia’s military capability”, Hagel said in Jakarta on 26 March. A US official speaking anonymously told reporters that the gunships would strengthen Indonesia’s anti-piracy operations and broaden “maritime awareness”.

According to the Jakarta Globe, the deal is a culmination of more than a year’s behind-the-scenes work by Indonesia, which views the helicopters as a key part of a plan to modernise its weaponry.

The sale represents the latest step in a gradual rapprochement between Washington and the Indonesian Military (TNI) in the face of opposition by human rights groups.

Real weapons, pretend reforms

In the wake of international outrage following the massacre of more than 100 peaceful protesters in East Timor in 1991, the US Congress cut off Indonesia’s access to specific kinds of military training and “lethal” equipment. When TNI-backed militias rampaged through East Timor after the UN-sponsored independence referendum in 1999, President Bill Clinton severed all remaining military ties, but then quietly restored contacts the following year.

Under the 1997 Leahy law – named after its author, US Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont – the US is banned from providing training or other kinds of assistance to any foreign military unit if there is “credible evidence” that it has committed “gross violations of human rights”. This can be waived if the secretary of state certifies that the relevant foreign government is “taking effective measures” to bring responsible members of the unit to justice.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 and the 2002 Bali bombing, the Bush administration attempted to circumvent these restrictions by providing assistance through a counter-terrorism program. In 2005, the administration issued a national security waiver allowing full engagement with the TNI, and abandoned the conditions for renewed cooperation, including TNI reforms and prosecution of soldiers responsible for rights violations.

Despite a complete failure to meet any of the conditions set by Congress, in July 2010 the Obama administration lifted a 12-year ban on US training of the TNI’s elite Special Forces Kopassus, accused of perpetrating some of the worst crimes against the people of East Timor, Indonesia and West Papua.

Australia – which also severed military ties in 1999 – resumed cooperation with the TNI in late 2002. Canberra’s resumption of training with Kopassus in 2005 was cited as a justification by the US for the lifting of its training ban.

A military tribunal is currently trying 12 Kopassus soldiers accused of storming a prison in Central Java and executing four detainees who allegedly killed a former Kopassus member in a drug-related brawl in March. The incident follows a “marathon of violence” by the TNI, rights groups reporting 51 cases of murder, attacks, intimidation, torture and land confiscation by TNI members in the first quarter of 2013.

Offensive weapons

Human rights groups say that it will be impossible for the US to dictate the TNI’s use of the new hardware once the sale has gone through. “The problem is that these are offensive-only weapons. Given the TNI’s history, they’re more likely to be used for internal repression than for external defence”, East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) National Coordinator John Miller told Red Flag. “The military will use these helicopters as they want. These are weapons of war, weapons of counterinsurgency, so it would be foolish to expect that the Indonesians wouldn’t use them in places like West Papua.”

When it first emerged last year that Indonesia was looking to acquire the Apaches, civil society groups wrote an open letter to the US Congress warning that Indonesia’s “long record of disregard for civilian casualties, corruption, human rights violations and impunity” should preclude the sale.

“These aircraft will substantially augment the [TNI’s] capacity to prosecute its ‘sweep operations’ in West Papua, and thereby almost certainly lead to increased suffering among the civilian populations long victimised by such operations”, the groups said. Organised by ETAN and the West Papua Advocacy Team (WPAT), the letter was signed by 90 human rights, religious, indigenous rights, disarmament and other organisations based in 14 countries.

In a statement released on 26 April, the ETAN and the WPAT said the sale demonstrates that US concern for human rights and justice in Indonesia is nothing more than hollow rhetoric.

“The sale … ignores the appalling record of human rights violations by the Indonesian military, which will operate this deadly weapons system”, the statement said. “The TNI continues to conduct military campaigns in West Papua. The military’s ‘sweeps’ and other military operations purportedly target the few remaining, lightly-armed pro-independence guerrillas. In reality, the operations are aimed at repressing and intimidating Papuans.”

The groups noted with concern a statement by Indonesian defence minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro that the deal does not include any conditions restricting the use of the weapons.

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