Indonesian Defense Chief, Accused of Rights Abuses, to Visit Pentagon

BANGKOK — For two decades, Prabowo Subianto, a former Indonesian general, was a pariah in international affairs.

Mr. Prabowo, once a son-in-law of the dictator Suharto, who died in 1998, and a past commander of Indonesia’s feared special forces, was blamed for atrocities committed by troops he had led. Under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he was prohibited from visiting the United States.

But now, Mr. Prabowo is Indonesia’s minister of defense and the ban has been lifted. At the invitation of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, Mr. Prabowo arrived in Washington this week and is expected to meet with top officials at the Pentagon on Thursday.

For Mr. Prabowo, who will turn 69 on Saturday while on his trip, the visit is the culmination of a yearslong quest to gain respectability. For Washington, it highlights the significance of Indonesia, a potentially important U.S. ally against China, and further signals the relegation of human rights to a minor diplomatic concern.

“The ban that applied to Minister Prabowo has been lifted, and he will visit the U.S. to discuss cooperation,” said Irawan Ronodipuro, a spokesman for Mr. Prabowo and his political party, Gerindra.

Amnesty International and six other human rights groups called on the Trump administration to cancel the visit, saying that it could violate the United States’ own rules on the entry of people accused of human rights violations and would undermine efforts in Indonesia to hold abusers accountable.

“Prabowo Subianto is a former Indonesian general who has been banned, since 2000, from entering the U.S., due to his alleged direct involvement in human rights violations,” the groups said in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “The State Department’s recent decision to lift the ban on Prabowo Subianto is an abrupt, complete reversal of longstanding U.S. foreign policy.”

As commander of the country’s special forces under Suharto in the late 1990s, Mr. Prabowo ordered the kidnapping of student activists in a failed effort to keep his father-in-law in power. Mr. Prabowo was also accused of atrocities in East Timor, a former province that broke away in 1999 and became independent in 2002.

After Suharto stepped down, ending more than three decades of kleptocratic rule, Mr. Prabowo was unceremoniously discharged from the army on charges of repeatedly breaking the law, violating human rights and disobeying orders.

However, like other high-ranking officials accused of committing atrocities and rights violations, he was never charged or put on trial. To the dismay of human rights advocates, he and others accused of abuses received important posts in subsequent democratically elected governments and have never been held accountable.

Mr. Prabowo, who once saw himself as a possible successor to his father-in-law, made four unsuccessful attempts to win election as president of Indonesia, the most recent in 2019.

In a surprise move, the president who twice defeated him, Joko Widodo, named him minister of defense a year ago this month. Mr. Joko’s apparent goal in appointing him was to build support among the major political parties in Parliament as he pushed through his economic agenda.

Less than two months later, Mr. Prabowo hired a Washington lobbyist, James N. Frinzi, to represent him, according to a form Mr. Frinzi filed under the United States Foreign Agents Registration Act. The document provides no information about the purpose of his lobbying.

This year, Mr. Prabowo quietly received the invitation from Mr. Esper, and the State Department issued him a visa.

Mr. Irawan, the spokesman, said that Mr. Prabowo recognized the United States’ “critical role in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region” and that the trip was aimed at “exploring how our two militaries can work together in the future to ensure our mutual interests are protected.”

“America is an important country,” Mr. Prabowo said before his departure. “I am invited. I have to fulfill the invitation.”

The human rights groups questioned whether the visa gave Mr. Prabowo immunity in the United States and, if so, urged that it be rescinded. If he did not receive immunity, they said, the United States would be obligated to investigate whether he was criminally responsible for torture and possibly bring him to trial or extradite him.

“We urge you to clarify that the visa issued to Prabowo Subianto does not extend any form of immunity to him, and to ensure that if he does travel to the U.S., he is properly and promptly investigated, and if there is sufficient evidence, brought to trial for his alleged responsibility for crimes under international law,” the groups said in their letter to Mr. Pompeo.

The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, an Indonesian rights organization, expressed its disappointment with the decision to allow Mr. Prabowo’s visit and said it would hinder continuing efforts to secure justice for the victims of human rights abuses.

“This legitimization by the United States government helps the Indonesian government, and especially Prabowo himself, avoid resolution of past cases of gross human rights violations that involve his name,” said the group’s chairwoman, Fatia Maulidiyanti.

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