Briefing Note: The return of Indonesian state terror? Australian involvement in police and military torture

Recommended Citation

"Briefing Note: The return of Indonesian state terror? Australian involvement in police and military torture", APSNet Briefing Notes, September 15, 2010,

On September 13, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age published a set of articles by Fairfax group Indonesia correspondent Tom Allard presenting detailed claims by victims of torture by members of the elite Indonesian National Police (POLRI) Anti-Terror Squad known as Densus 88 or Detachment 88. The unit, which is part of POLRI’s Mobile Brigade (Brimob), was established to be the country’s primary counter-terrorism police unit, and has received considerable Australian and US government assistance. However, for a number of years Indonesian and foreign observers have reported numerous cases of Densus 88 human rights violations. Allard’s report presented accounts of torture of activists arrested for non-violent support for the banned Republic of South Moluccas (Republik Maluku Selatan or RMS).

The Allard articles followed a June 2010 Human Rights Watch report on political prisoners throughout Indonesia, including a detailed account of  ill-treatment of Malukan prisoners following a 2007 RMS flag-raising ceremony. One of the most striking features of the Human Rights Watch report was a map of political prisoners in Indonesia today that showed a disturbing resemblance to the pattern of state violations of citizens’ human rights during the Soeharto dictatorship. A year earlier an Asia Times investigation by John McBeth had focussed on the detachment’s spreading reputation for a “licence to kill” – an apparent preference for immediate resort to lethal force in policing. In 2009 Allan Nairn published detailed allegations, denied by Indonesian armed forces (TNI) representatives, that the Army’s Kopassus (Special Forces) and other TNI personnel carried out extra-judicial executions in Aceh. Similar claims have been made about Kopassus illegal activities in Papua.

Allard’s report brought the question of Australian government funding for the POLRI Anti-Terror Squad’s activities into mainstream public scrutiny for the first time. Allard writes that

“Detachment 88 was, at its inception, equipped and trained in large part by the United States and Australia, which provided it with high-level training in communications interception, close combat, forensic sciences, surveillance and intelligence gathering and analysis.”

Allard also stated that Detachment 88 has “a facility at the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Co-operation, set up in 2004 with almost $40 million of Australian funding. According to the centre’s website, the Australian Federal Police still run most of the counter-terrorism seminars.” The Centre, which continued to receive substantial Australian funding in the 2009-10 budget, is seen by Australian authorities as a key element in its wider objectives of cooperation with Indonesian police over counter-terrorism and illegal migration.

These allegations of serious human rights abuses by an Australian- and US-funded Indonesian National Police squad lead to a renewed assessment of questions raised at the time of the resumption of Australian military assistance to the elite Indonesian army counter-terrorism unit within the army’s Kopassus (Special Forces) in 2003. The Obama administration’s decision in July of this year to resume direct US military assistance to Kopassus, despite widely acknowledged limitations in TNI reforms, was justified by the Secretary of Defense in terms of global and regional counter-terrorism requirements.

In both cases, Australian and US government support for close financial, organisational and indeed political support for Indonesian military and police activities rested on the claim that, after three decades of military dictatorship, Indonesia had a democratically elected  government committed to civilian control of the armed forces and to the rule of law. The well-informed warning that the former Australian Assistant Secretary of Defence, Allan Behm, made on the decision to resume support of Kopassus in 2003 still holds today, and applies as equally to Detachment 88:

“Kopassus is, in some respects, a law unto itself, able to use its relatively advanced capabilities in the use of armed force as and when it sees fit. Dominating the Indonesian command chain as it does, Kopassus is well able to employ the very specific skills it might learn or reinforce from Australia against its own government. And therein lies the greatest danger to Australia from the provision of Special Forces training. Dealings with Special Forces should await much clearer indications that they are under the full and effective control of the Indonesian military leadership and, more importantly, the elected Indonesian government.”

The cases of Detachment 88 and Kopassus both raise key questions of the extent of post-Soeharto democratic control of armed forces, and indeed, of the capacity of the Indonesian police and army commands to control their own nominally subordinate organizations and to ensure adherence to Indonesian law. With the shadow of three decades of bipartisan Australian government support for Indonesian state terror in the Soeharto period, and given clear limitations on effective Indonesian government controls over its own military and police, it is in the interests of both Australia and Indonesia that the Australian government scrutinise all aspects of its involvement with Detachment 88 and Kopassus.

Richard Tanter

September 15, 2010


Australia paying troops who ‘torture’, Tom Allard, SMH, September 13, 2010

Indonesia’s new danger from within, Tom Allard, SMH, September 13, 2010

The dream job for police, Tom Allard, SMH, September 13, 2010

Indonesia Police to Investigate Police Torture Allegations, Jakarta Globe, September 14, 2010

Australian Authorities Not Welcome to Investigate Alleged Torture Allegations, Indonesian Police Chief Says, Jakarta Globe, September 14, 2010

Malukan activists at risk of torture in detention in Indonesia, Amnesty International, 4 August 2010

Deep inside Indonesia’s kill zone, Asia Times Online Investigation,  John McBeth, Asia Times, 31 October 2009

Prosecuting Political Aspiration: Indonesia’s Political Prisoners, Human Rights Watch, 22 June 2010

Indonesia: Jihadi Surprise in Aceh, International Crisis Group, Asia Report 189, 20 April 2010

Police reforms failed, says human rights watchdog, Bagus BT Saragih, Jakarta Post,2010-06-29

Fact sheet 4 – Regional assistance, Information Sheets, Budget 2004, Attorney-General’s Department. 

Enhancing International Law Enforcement Co-operation and Capacity Building, Budget 2009-10, Media Release, 12 May 2009

U.S.-funded Detachment 88, elite of Indonesia security, Ed Davies and Olivia Rondonuwu, Reuters, March 18, 2010

Detachment 88, Kopassus Get Covert US Aid: US Intelligence is Tapping Indonesian Phones. Allan Nairn, Counterpunch, December 12, 2007

Indonesia: US Resumes Military Assistance to Abusive Force: Obama Administration Lifts Ban Despite Military’s Lack of Reform, Accountability, Human Rights Watch, July 22, 2010

Cooperation With Kopassus? Take Care! Allan Behm, Agenda, Volume 10, Number 1, 2003, pages 13-18

The Kopassus Dilemma: Should Australia Re-engage? Alan Dupont, Australian National University. Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Working Paper 373, February 2003

Australia’s Renewal of Training Links with Kopassus: A Critique, Damien Kingsbury, Australian National University. Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Working Paper 387, March 2004