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January 31, 2013

Densus 88 and the Asia Pivot

As part of the “war on terror,” the United States has forged close relations with Indonesia. A lot of the U.S. funding goes to the police, including to a special counterterrorism unit, Special  Detachment 88 (also known as Densus 88), which Mathew P. Daley, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, has said, would “substantially enhance the Indonesian Government’s capability to neutralize terrorist cells and conduct terrorism-related criminal investigations.”

Although U.S. funding has helped improve police capacity, there have been continued reports that the police are killing suspects unlawfully and targeting them because of their religious belief and affiliation to secessionist movements. Earlier this month reports emerged from Jakarta that Densus 88 had killed seven suspected militants. This has revived allegations that the force is reluctant to take suspects alive—a trend that appears to fuel the extremism this predominantly Muslim country is trying to counter.

As has happened in the aftermath of previous Densus 88 operations, human rights groups questioned the group’s apparent “shoot-first” policy. And some anti-terrorism groups decry the inability to question suspected terrorists who could have been taken alive and call for independent investigations into what they perceive to be extra-judicial killings.

Haris Azhar, the chairman of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), told the Jakarta Globe that Densus 88’s crackdown on pro-independence activists threatens fundamental rights. “There’s the precedent that Densus 88 was involved in the torture of the peaceful separatist movement of RMS, which posed no physical threats to the public at large. This is dangerous. If Densus 88 is allowed to handle non-terrorism issues, then all political activists will be treated as terrorists.”

Azhar said that by labeling political activists and separatist groups as terrorists, the government risks jeopardizing its prospects for peaceful reconciliation. “I’m worried about the deteriorating public sympathy for police who continue to use violence,” he said, alleging that some suspects have been shot in front of their children. “There has never been any evaluation of Densus’s actions. It seems the police brutality has contributed to the growing of terrorism.”

In trying to counter radical Islamic militants, the United States is empowering an anti-terror police squad that’s perpetuating political violence in Indonesia. If the United States is serious about its “pivot” to Southeast Asia, the Obama Administration should investigate these reports immediately and make it clear to the Indonesian government that it will not tolerate human rights abuses.