JAKARTA, Indonesia – Three Indonesian soldiers captured on video torturing suspected separatists were sentenced Monday up to 10 months in prison, angering rights activists who slammed the lenient ruling as a sham underlining the military's impunity.
Critics said the verdict showed that Indonesia, which only recently emerged from decades of a military-led dictatorship, still had a long way to go toward implementing democratic reform.
Footage posted on YouTube last year showed three men in uniform in the restive eastern region of Papua burning the genitals of one unarmed suspected separatist, who lay bound and naked on the ground, and then running a knife across the neck of another.
One of the victims later said in a video made available by New York-based Human Rights Watch that they endured three more days of torture after their interrogation at a military checkpoint.
"I thought I was going to die," said Anggen Pugu Kiwo, 50, adding that soldiers wrapped barbed wire wrapped around his legs, stubbed cigarettes out in his face, and beat him repeatedly with a wooden stick in the neck and legs.
"At one point I prayed they would just shoot me," he said.
The case sparked international outrage, prompting the Indonesian government to make a rare acknowledgment of military abuses, and promising that justice would be served.
However, in a court martial trial that wrapped up Monday in Papua's provincial capital, Jayapura, the three soldiers were sentenced to between eight and 10 months in jail, for the relatively minor offense of disobeying orders to respect the rights of civilians and refrain from violence in the field.
"They tortured two men who had no identification documents at a military post," presiding judge Adil Karokaro said, but added that the soldiers deserved some leniency because they had confessed to their crimes and shown remorse.
Government and military officials said the two-week trial was free and fair, and called on all parties to respect the decision.
"There was no intervention from any institution. The decision fulfilled a sense of justice both for the defendant and the victim," military spokesman Rear Admiral Iskandar Sitompul told The Associated Press.
But rights activists slammed the sentences as a mockery of justice.
"It was a military tribunal," said Rafendi Djamin of the Jakarta-based Human Rights Working Group, adding that the victims didn't show up for the trial because they feared for their lives.
"The judges and prosecutors always side with the military ... everyone knows that."
Indonesia, a nation of more than 237 million people, has made tremendous strides toward democracy since former dictator Suharto was ousted just over a decade ago, but it remains highly sensitive to ongoing separatist struggles in Papua and the Molucca islands.
The United States, which last year lifted a decade-old ban on military assistance to a notoriously violent Indonesian commando unit, closely monitored the trials.
"We are very concerned that the Indonesian military charged the soldiers only with disobeying orders and that the sentences handed down ... do not reflect the seriousness of the abuses depicted in the video," Paul Belmont, a U.S. Embassy spokesman, said Tuesday.
"We have expressed these concerns to the Indonesian government," he said, adding that Washington does welcome, however, the transparent judicial process and statements from top leaders that rights abuses by the armed forces would not be tolerated.