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  • Operation Overseas Series

  •   Elite Unit Suspected of Torture

    By Dana Priest
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, May 23 1998; Page A01

    U.S. officials believe that an elite U.S.-trained military unit in Indonesia has been involved in kidnapping and torturing political dissidents, and Washington is considering a permanent ban on ties with the unit, U.S. defense and diplomatic officials said.

    Shortly after a number of influential political activists began disappearing in February, the U.S. ambassador in Jakarta, J. Stapleton Roy, met with Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, who headed the Kopassus special forces until March, to express U.S. anger over the disappearances and to request that Prabowo try to gain the activists' release, sources said.

    U.S. officials said Prabowo denied that the troops were involved. But in the weeks following the U.S. entreaty, government sources said, four of the dissidents were released and several others were transferred to the Metropolitan Jakarta Police Command, where they remain.

    Prabowo was sacked yesterday by his military rival, Gen. Wiranto, the head of the Indonesian armed forces, who is consolidating his power after the resignation this week of President Suharto. U.S. sources in the region said they have been told Wiranto is accusing Prabowo of ordering the shooting of students in demonstrations two weeks ago and of the disappearances. Prabowo, who is Suharto's son-in-law, declined requests for an interview.

    "The U.S. government has made it clear in public statements and private meetings with Indonesian officials that we were concerned about the disappearances, and we urged respect for human rights and the due process of law," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon, who otherwise declined to discuss the allegations against Kopassus.

    Despite the U.S. concern about the kidnappings and Indonesia's deteriorating political situation, officials tried to maintain good relations with Prabowo and Kopassus. Even after Roy's meeting with Prabowo, U.S. Special Forces troops held three training exercises with Kopassus -- in March, April and May.

    Defense officials said the charges are particularly sensitive given the still volatile situation in Indonesia and the presence of Americans there. In several interviews here and in Indonesia, U.S. officials confirmed their strong suspicion that Kopassus was behind the abuses.

    Western sources said the United States became convinced that Kopassus likely was responsible for the recent round of disappearances, based on independent information gleaned in Indonesia and from public and private descriptions of conditions in captivity made by some of those released.

    The possible involvement of Kopassus troops could become an embarrassment for the U.S. military, which nurtured its ties with the unit through frequent training exercises involving America's most highly skilled guerrilla warriors and visits by senior military officers.

    Prabowo, 47, whose ties to the U.S. military are the closest of any among the U.S.-trained officer corps, attended the Advanced Infantry Officers Course at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1985 and the Army Special Forces Training Course at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1980.

    In January, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen met with Prabowo and was treated to a display of Kopassus skills, which included unflinching contact with scorpions and bats. Since 1991, U.S. Special Forces troops have conducted 41 training exercises with Indonesian troops, and at least 26 of those were with Kopassus. The training involved counterterrorism, mission planning, sniper skills and rapid infiltration of troops. U.S. defense analysts in Jakarta said the training included discussions of the human rights standards of the U.S. military.

    The exercises were suspended two weeks ago because of the unrest in the country. High-ranking U.S. officers have said they are hopeful the training will resume. But a senior State Department official said this week that a cutoff of all ties with Kopassus "is a likely outcome."

    International human rights organizations have long accused Kopassus of human rights violations, especially in the outlying regions of East Timor, Aceh and Irian Jaya, where tiny, poorly armed insurgencies exist.

    "The United States should ban any further cooperation with Kopassus until a full investigation has been completed and those accused have been prosecuted," said Sidney Jones of Human Rights Watch.

    Fifteen political activists have been reported kidnapped since February. Four have been released and as many as seven are believed to have been transferred to a Jakarta police station. Seven of the men, including three who have been released, reportedly were held in the same detention facility and spoke to each other through cell walls at different times.

    Some of the former captives have provided details about their surroundings that have been helpful in determining where they were held, officials said. The descriptions mention a daily military-style bugle call, the sound of particular aircraft close by, the sight of military pistols and a description of the road on which the detainees traveled on the day of their release.

    The presence of several dissidents in the same place, Western officials said, indicates that their abduction was part of a centralized, organized operation and not one carried out by renegade troops or police. Some captives have also told Indonesian investigators that they overheard their captors talking about receiving foreign military training.

    These and other details have given Western government officials reasons to believe that the detainees may have been held at a military base in south Jakarta used by Kopassus's Group 4 intelligence unit and its Group 5 counterterrorism unit.

    Group 4 is responsible for interrogations and carries out clandestine operations around the country, according to Western defense officials.

    The U.S. Special Forces held a maritime exercise with Group 5 in August and September 1996. They have not conducted exercises with Group 4, but Western defense officials here note that members of Kopassus are routinely rotated from place to place and group to group, just like in the United States.

    The captives held together include Puis Lustrilanang, chairman of the People's Alliance for Democracy, who told Congress two weeks ago that he believed the military was responsible for the abductions, and Desmond J. Mahesa, chairman of the Jakarta branch of the Nusantara Legal Aid Foundation, who described his ordeal at a Jakarta news conference last week.

    Puis, who fled to the Netherlands after his release, testified that he was tortured.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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