Human rights advocates this week sounded the alarm on a meeting scheduled for Friday between American Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, a former U.S.-trained general in an elite army unit implicated in genocidal violence and other atrocities in East Timor, West Papua, Jakarta, and elsewhere in the archipelago nation in the late decades of the last century.
Since 2000, Prabowo has been banned from entering the United States by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. However, Esper last week invited the 68-year-old to Washington as the Trump administration seeks closer relations with the nation of 268 million people in a bid to counter China’s growing clout.
Human rights groups say lifting the ban on Prabowo is a grave mistake.
Amnesty International on Tuesday sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, signed by numerous rights groups in the U.S. and Indonesia, urging the Trump administration to rescind Prabowo’s invitation, arguing the decision to lift the 20-year ban “may violate the Leahy Law and will be catastrophic for human rights.”
The Leahy Law—introduced in 1997 by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)—prohibits the State and Defense Departments from providing military assistance to armed forces that commit atrocities with impunity.
On Tuesday, Leahy issued a statement noting that “Prabowo has been credibly implicated in gross violations of human rights, including kidnapping, torture, and disappearances, and under our law he is ineligible to enter this country.”
“By granting him a visa, the president and secretary of state have shown once again that for them ‘law and order’ is an empty slogan that ignores the imperative of justice,” said Leahy. “The State Department should apply the law and deny him a visa, and the Pentagon should reaffirm its commitment to the rule of law.”
Prabowo joined the elite Kopassus commando unit in 1976, just months after President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger green-lighted a genocidal Indonesian invasion of newly-independent East Timor that would ultimately claim as many as 200,000 lives—around a quarter of the nation’s population.
Allegations against the former general—who was trained at Ft. Benning in Georgia—go back to the 1980s, during the long-running armed insurrection against the Indonesian occupation. He allegedly led the massacre of some 300 civilians, including many women and children, as well as the abduction and torture of 23 pro-democracy activists in 1997 and 1998 as the regime of ruling Gen. Suharto—who rose to power during U.S.-backed genocidal violence in the mid-1960s—collapsed.
Prabowo is also accused of orchestrating the worst atrocity of the period immediately preceding Suharto’s fall. Kopassus troops under his command allegedly led the mass rape and murder of at least 160 Chinese-Indonesian women and girls, many of whom were reportedly burned to death after being sexually assaulted, and the murder of hundreds of other Indonesians of Chinese origin.
The Clinton administration cut ties with Kopassus in 1999. However, in 2010 the Obama administration, citing the unit’s improved human rights record under a democratic Indonesian government, resumed cooperation. This, despite reports that Kopassus was still committing atrocities, this time against Christians in independence-minded West Papua.
Amnesty International’s letter called on Pompeo to “clarify that the visa issued to… Prabowo does not extend any form of immunity to him, and to ensure that if he does travel to the U.S., he is properly and promptly investigated, and if there is sufficient evidence, brought to trial for his alleged responsibility for crimes under international law.”
Experts, however, said it was highly unlikely that the U.S.—which has supported nearly every right-wing dictatorship since the end of World War II as well as genocidal regimes in Indonesia, Pakistan, Guatemala, Iraq, and Rwanda—would take legal action against Prabowo, as required under domestic and international law.
“It’s likely that [Prabowo] has diplomatic immunity and therefore can’t be charged with a crime or can’t be arrested while he’s in the U.S.,” Ilya Somin, a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University in Virginia, told Voice of America.
“I think this visit’s really been choreographed at the highest levels and the minister is going to be greeted with great respect in Washington,” added Brian Harding a former Pentagon official now with the U.S. Institute of Peace.
A 2010 proclamation by President Barack Obama also banned human rights violators from entering the United States, although the order has rarely been enforced and—like other U.S. human rights meausres including the Child Soldiers Prevention Act—allows for “national interest” exceptions.