By: Our Correspondent

Human rights organizations across Asia and the world are reacting with
disappointment and anger over the July 22 decision, announced in Jakarta
by US Secretary of Defense Robert M Gates, to lift his agency's
decade-old ban on cooperation with the Army's elite Kopassus special
forces unit, which has been accused of widespread terrorism against foes
of the Indonesian government.

The ban was instituted in 1999 in
the wake of charges that Kopassus had taken part in extensive human
rights abuses as the Suharto regime teetered on its last legs. There is
considerable speculation that the Indonesian government, which has been
seeking reinstatement of Kopassus's status for several years, was
threatening to seek tie-ups with the Chinese military for training and
assistance if the Americans didn't do it.

Eyewitnesses have
accused Kopassus of being involved in or even supervising riots in
Jakarta in May of 1998, including the mass gang rape of ethnic Chinese
women amid serious racial tension between Indonesians and the Chinese
minority. Prabowo Subianto, the now-divorced son-in-law of the strongman
Suharto, commanded the Kopassus from 1995 through 1998 and was accused
of involvement in various "riots, plunderings, rapes and murders" by
various human rights organizations over his attempts to keep East Timor
from seceding. Nonetheless, Prabowo survived to become a businessman and
politician to run as vice president in 2009 national elections with
Wiranto, another army general who was widely accused of human rights
violations.

Kopassus soldiers were also accused of abducting
student activists during the 1998 crisis. Four Kopassus soldiers were
convicted of the strangulation killing of Thuys Eluay, the former
chairman of the Papuan Presidium Council in 2001. Two received light
prison sentences of three and a half years and two others received three
years and none were discharged from the service. Indonesian human
rights organizations say the unit has continued to commit abuses in
Papua, which continues to have a strong breakaway movement.

The
East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN), where separatists bore
the brunt of Kopassus suppression during East Timor's 1999 secession
from Indonesia, condemned the Obama administration's decision. John M.
Miller, the national coordinator for ETAN, said that: "Slipping back
into bed with Kopassus is a betrayal of the brutal unit's many victims
in Timor-Leste, West Papua and throughout Indonesia. It will lead to
more people to suffer abuses. Working with Kopassus, which remains
unrepentant about its long history of terrorizing civilians, will
undermine efforts to achieve justice and accountability for human rights
crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste (East Timor)."

Amnesty
International, in a statement from Washington, DC, said the
reinstatement "sends the wrong message in a country where mass and
severe human rights violations have taken place in an atmosphere of
impunity. US support to this unit undercuts the recent efforts
advocating reform within the Indonesian military." The human rights
organization called on the Obama administration "to make public what
commitments they received from the Indonesian authorities about bringing
Kopassus military leaders to justice and also calls upon President
Obama, in his upcoming visit to Indonesia, to speak publicly about human
rights abuses in Indonesia and to meet the families of those killed by
the Kopassus."

Human Rights watch, in a statement issued in New
York, said "The Obama administration's decision to lift a more than
decade-long ban on US military assistance to Indonesia's abusive Special
Forces seriously undermines its commitment to promoting respect for
human rights in Indonesia and weakens US standards for military
cooperation globally. Kopassus has been responsible for numerous serious
human rights abuses – including killings, enforced disappearances, and
torture – since the 1990s. The Indonesian government's failure to remove
Kopassus soldiers convicted of serious abuses from the military, and
its recent appointment of officers credibly linked with abuses to
leadership posts within Kopassus and the Defense Ministry made repealing
the ban particularly inappropriate."

US Sen. Patrick Leahy, the
author of the law that bans US support to foreign militaries that
violate human rights, said Kopassus "remains unrepentant, essentially
unreformed and unaccountable," adding that "I deeply regret that before
starting down the road of re-engagement, our country did not obtain and
Kopassus did not accept the necessary reforms we have long sought."

Nonetheless,
Gates defended the decision, saying: "The United States will begin a
measured and gradual program of security cooperation activities with the
Indonesian Army Special Forces," during a news conference after meeting
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He added that the decision was made
as "a result of Indonesian military reforms over the past decade, the
ongoing professionalization of Tentara Nasional Indonesia, the
Indonesian Armed Forces, and recent actions taken by the Ministry of
Defense to address human rights issues." "I understand there's been a
dramatically declining number of violations of human rights," Gates
said, adding that the US government was "responding to the progress."
The initial stages, Gates said, could include allowing Kopassus to
participate in select conferences and events involving non-lethal
subjects like rule of law, human rights and the military decision-making
process. "I noted to the president that these initial steps will take
place within the limits of US law and do not signal any lessening of the
importance we place on human rights and accountability," the defense
secretary said. "Our ability to expand upon these initial steps will
depend on continued implementation of reforms within Kopassus and TNI as
a whole," Gates said.

The officials said that the Defense
Department is not seeking funding from Congress for the renewed
engagement with Kopassus. The US State Department would be in charge of
vetting individual members of Kopassus before allowing them to
participate in training with the American military.

Leahy, who
heads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that authorizes funding for
foreign operations, was relieved that Gates did not announce
full-fledged cooperation. "A conditional toe in the water is wiser at
this stage than diving in," Leahy said. "We're going in with our eyes
open," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said. "Kopassus has a
dark past. We recognize that. We're going to be insisting that Indonesia
live up to its stated commitments."