JAKARTA, Indonesia – The United States is lifting a ban of more than a decade on military contact with an elite Indonesian special forces unit implicated in past killings of civilians and other abuses, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced Thursday, after meeting here with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia.
The decision to lift the ban and to take steps toward training the unit, called Kopassus, was reached after intensive internal debate among the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department over whether it had truly left its brutal history behind.
“These initial steps will take place within the limits of U.S. law and do not signal any lessening of the importance we place on human rights and accountability,” Mr. Gates told reporters at the presidential palace complex here. He called the steps “a measured and gradual program of security cooperation activities” with the special forces group.
The Indonesian government lobbied hard for an end to the ban, and officials dropped hints that the group might explore building ties with the Chinese military if the ban remained.
The Pentagon had long pushed for the 1999 ban to be lifted, but met resistance from the State Department and White House.
For the most part, current criticism of the unit has been limited to human rights organizations. In the past decade, the military lost much of its political influence and power to the national police, whose abuses and corrupt practices have now become the focus of Indonesian society. The anticipated lifting of the ban on Kopassus drew little attention from the public, news media or politicians here.
Kopassus members were convicted of abducting student activists in 1997 and 1998 and for abuses that led to the 2001 death of a Papuan activist. The unit was also implicated in serious human rights abuses in Aceh Province, and in East Timor before that territory gained independence in 2002.
Indonesian rights organizations say that the unit has continued to commit abuses, especially in Papua, a mineral-rich island with a secessionist movement, since Indonesia began democratizing in 1998. They say that Kopassus has also been behind the kidnapping of human rights activists since 1998.
“The governments of Indonesia and the United States must be aware of the political violence involving Kopassus not only during the past military era, but during the current era of democracy,” said Usman Hamid, executive director of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, a private organization. “So far, not one single person in the military has been held accountable for past violations. Impunity is the weakest point in the democracy of Indonesia.”
Congress bars the United States from training military units that are credibly believed to have engaged in human rights abuses, unless the units take steps to improve. The principal sponsor of that law, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, reacted with dismay to the lifting of the ban on the group.
“Kopassus has a long history of abuses and remains unrepentant, essentially unreformed, and unaccountable,” Mr. Leahy said in a statement. “I deeply regret that before starting down the road of reengagement, our country did not obtain and Kopassus did not accept the necessary reforms we have long sought.” Nonetheless, he said, “a conditional toe in the water is wiser at this stage than diving in.”
But American defense officials say that the unit, believed to number about 5,000, has reformed enough since the fall of President Suharto in Indonesia in 1998 and that the United States engagement could help bring about further change. The unit deploys overseas in peacekeeping operations and remains a major source of leaders for the Indonesian military.
“It is a different unit than its reputation suggests,” Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters traveling with Mr. Gates. “Clearly, it had a very dark past, but they have done a lot to change that.”
American defense officials said that the American military would have limited engagement with Kopassus to start, starting with staff-to-staff meetings, and that there would be no immediate military training. They said that the Defense Department was not seeking funds from Congress for the renewed engagement.
Human Rights Watch, which has opposed renewed ties with Kopassus unless significant conditions were met, sharply criticized the decision.
“This is a development that will not just have ramifications in Indonesia,” said Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch in New York. “Every abusive military in the world will sit up and say if the United States is willing to go ahead and engage with Kopassus despite its failure to reform, why shouldn’t the U.S. engage with other abusive militaries?”
Mr. Gates said that for him the question of working with Kopassus came down to the best way to advance human rights.
“My view is that, particularly if people are making an effort to make progress, that recognizing that effort, and working with them further, will produce greater gains in human rights for people than simply standing back and shouting at people,” he said.
In preparation for lifting the ban, Defense Department officials said they had asked the Indonesian government in recent months to remove “less than a dozen” members of Kopassus who had been convicted of previous human rights abuses. Among those who recently left was Lt. Col. Tri Hartomo, who was convicted by an Indonesian military court in 2003 and served time in prison for abuse leading to the death of a Papuan activist, Theys Eluay.
Defense Department officials said that Colonel Hartomo remained a member of the Indonesian military.
Lt. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, who was implicated in a massacre in East Timor while he served in Kopassus, was appointed deputy defense minister in January, and remains there. Defense Department officials said the distinction for them was that General Sjamsoeddin was only implicated, not convicted.
The State Department will be in charge of vetting individual members before they participate in training with the American military.
Defense Department officials said they had received assurances from the Indonesian government that any member of the group who is credibly accused of abuses from now on would be suspended, and that any member convicted of abuse would be removed.