Indonesia’s counter-terror unit Detachment 88 is funded and trained by Australia. Why are we so involved with a unit whose work includes counter-separatist activities?
When politicians in Australia hail the success of Indonesia’s counter-terror forces in catching, charging — and often killing — the country’s top terror operatives, it’s Detachment 88’s work they are talking about.
Detachment 88 is an elite counter-terror unit within the Indonesian National Police that was formed in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali Bombings. It is funded and trained by Australia, and enjoys close co-operation with the Australian Federal Police.
Jakarta-based terror expert Sidney Jones calls them “the top of the top” — and Australia’s training and money have been instrumental in their success in disarming Indonesia’s significant terror network.
According to DFAT, Indonesian authorities have convicted over 470 terrorists and their accomplices since 2000.
But there are growing concerns about what else they are using that deadly efficiency for — and although we train and fund them, we exercise little control over their operations.
When Detachment 88 was accused in 2010 of torturing independence activists in the Indonesian province of Maluku, the AFP and Australian Government said they were concerned about the allegations but had “no mandate to investigate the conduct of foreign police within another country”.
But the incident was not an isolated one — now, activists in West Papua claim Detachment 88 is being deployed to hunt down not only armed resistance fighters, but also civilians with ties to the independence movement, in what appears to be a growing campaign of intimidation.
“Everyone thought it was going to be safe…”
I met Eric Sonindemi, a participant in last October’s Third Papuan People’s Congress, in a cafe in Jakarta. He told me that soon after their arrival from Jakarta, a surge of Detachment 88 personnel was involved in the deadly attack on Congress, in which six people were killed and many others wounded. Sonindemi told NM:
“Most of the security forces were in plain clothes, but they weren’t really concealing their weapons — they were sort of showing off. Detachment 88 was there.”
“[I] saw their equipment and riots shields”.
On the last day of Congress, Sonindemi was as surprised as other participants when the police and military opened fire because the gathering had been peaceful. He said:
“Everyone thought it was going to be safe because the event ended peacefully and [Congress leader] Forkorus Yaboisembut thanked the police and Indonesia for their support. People went home thinking they were safe.”
But then security forces began firing indiscriminately into the dwindling crowd. Sonindemi said:
“I was in a nearby monastery when the shooting started — which wasn’t until about 30-45 minutes after the Congress had ended.”
“I hid in one of the brothers’ rooms and put on one of his robes, pretending to be a student. Soon the fully armed police and military arrived. They used tear gas and threatened to ransack the place before taking away a number of people, who were all told to squat and crawl toward the sports field.”
“Hundreds of people were detained that night and many of them were beaten in detention. I spoke to one person who had a gash in his head, a broken nose and bruises on his face. He had been beaten with the butt of a rifle by a policeman.”
“He was subsequently released and never charged with any crime.”
Sonindemi explains that the security situation in Papua has “really been heating up” since August last year. He told New Matilda:
“Before August, the police and military would not come in big numbers if there was a public rally. That has changed now.”
policing “separatism” — rather than terrorism.
According to Jakarta Globe journalist Nivell Rayda, who has been investigating Detachment 88, there has been a marked shift by the force in recent months toward policing “separatism” — rather than terrorism.
When I spoke to Rayda last week in the Jakarta Globe newsroom he said he believes this is because Indonesia has not had a major terror attack since the second JW Marriott bombing in 2009 — and says he noticed a similar trend between 2005 and 2009, when there was also a period of relative calm. He told NM:
“Detachment 88 being somewhat of an elite unit, being funded and trained by foreign countries… they just lay dormant — their resources, their equipment and their tactical abilities, and investigation techniques just laying dormant for years,”
It was during this period that the unit was involved in the torture of local independence activists in Maluku. He said:
“In 2009 we had another major attack, but since then we’ve arrested nearly all the major players and terrorism suspects … there haven’t really been any major terrorism events taking shape, and it looks like the pattern seems to repeat itself: Detachment 88 has been engaging once more in non-terrorism issues, including [counter] separatism.”
Rayda agrees that Detachment 88 is not only pursuing armed resistance fighters, and cites a case in August last year in Nafri, Papua, in which two young girls were detained among a group of 15 people after a fatal shooting attack on a public minivan.
The OPM was blamed but denied involvement and Detachment 88 was dispatched to help local police with the investigation. Neville told New Matilda:
“After Detachment 88 stepped in, they arrested 15 people — including a 7- and an 8-year-old girl. These 15 people were beaten, they were tortured, they were arbitrarily detained and treated inhumanely.”
“But the following day, they released 13 of them. So only two of them were responsible for the shooting, and the other 13 were innocent — but they were beaten as well.”
Eric Sonindemi said mass arrests are a common tactic used by police in Papua to intimidate people and weed out the perpetrators.
A Jakarta-based security analyst who asked not to be named admitted when I met with them last week that they held concerns about Detachment 88’s loose definition of terrorism — but claimed the force was “moving away from [policing separatism] now”. The analyst told NM:
“Detachment 88 has been sent to Papua in certain cases where the local police don’t have investigative skills, but it’s more to help in the investigations than to engage in raids.”
“The exception to that was the… death of [OPM leader] Kelly Kwalik in December 2010, which did involve Detachment 88.”
But Rayda disagrees. In fact when he asked the Indonesian National Police why Detachment 88 were involved in raids against OPM members that displaced thousands of villagers in Papua’s Paniai in December last year, he says the police were quite up front about the fact that they believe
“terrorism is not only limited to bombings and militants and stuff like that. It also extends to separatism”.
An Australian funded and trained elite counter-separatist force?
This was not the Australian government’s intention when it began pouring millions of dollars into the Indonesian counter-terror effort after the Bali bombings.
Both the 2002 MoU with Indonesia on combating international terrorism, and the MoU on police co-operation between our two countries, focus firmly on transnational, not local, crime — and the AFP says Detachment 88 has not sought assistance from Australia in any investigations or operations to counter internal separatist movements.
However, the Australians do admit to working very closely with the Indonesian National Police at Jakarta headquarters, where Detachment 88 is now controlled.
New Matilda asked the AFP how much they know about Detachment 88’s operations before they take place. We also asked the minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare, whether Australia condoned a definition of terrorism that included peaceful expressions of dissent.
We did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Detachment 88 has a distinctive owl logo but Nevill Rayda say locals recognise their presence because, unlike the local police, they carry foreign-made weapons and wear balaclava-like masks.
Curiously, Detachment 88 officers are commonly issued with Steyr assualt rifles — an unusual rifle to be used by Indonesian forces. The Steyr is standard issue to Australian troops and is manufactured by Australian Defence Industries in Lithgow NSW.
Rayda has spoken to a number of activists in Papua and Indonesia’s other trouble spots who have noticed officers from the elite unit at rallies and during raids.
Sonindemi agreed when I met with him that,
“The understanding that Detachment 88 are in Papua now is quite widespread”,
and told me he was deeply concerned about the situation.
“Usually in Papua conflicts emerge because of increased troop deployment. It’s usually the source of the problem.”
*** This is the first article in an ongoing NM investigation of Detachment 88 and Australia’s role in the Indonesian counter-terror effort.