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World News

Pentagon prepares to welcome once-banned Indonesian minister, despite rights concerns

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s administration will welcome Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto to the Pentagon on Friday after dropping a defacto ban on his entry into the country imposed over accusations of human rights abuses.

FILE PHOTO: Prabowo Subianto gestures as he arrives to attend the inauguration of Indonesia's President Joko Widodo for the second term, at the House of Representatives building in Jakarta, Indonesia October 20, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan/File Photo

Prabowo, a 68-year-old former special forces commander, has long been a controversial figure in Indonesia, accused of involvement with military crimes in places like East Timor that have earned him scorn among human rights advocates.

But since being named as defense minister last year, Prabowo, who denies any wrongdoing, has also become a key figure as the Trump administration attempts to deepen defense ties with Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

Of particular concern to Washington, Indonesia’s military is also being courted by Russia and China.

A senior U.S. defense official strongly defended the decision to welcome Prabowo to the Pentagon, where he will meet Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

“Minister Prabowo is the appointed minister of defense of the now twice duly-elected president of Indonesia, which is the third-largest democracy in the world,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“He is our counterpart, of a very important partnership, and it is important that we engage with him and treat him as a partner.”

Prabowo will receive official briefings elsewhere in the Washington D.C.-area on Thursday as Jakarta weighs a fighter jet purchase that has also attracted interest from Moscow.

Amnesty International and other rights advocates condemned the decision by the U.S. State Department to grant him a visa, something it had denied in years past, including when Prabowo’s son graduated from Boston University.

Prabowo told Reuters in 2012 he was refused a U.S. visa due to allegations that he had instigated riots that killed hundreds after the overthrow of Indonesia’s then-president Suharto in 1998.

“The State Department’s recent decision to lift the ban on Prabowo Subianto is an abrupt, complete reversal of longstanding U.S. foreign policy,” said Amnesty International USA’s National Director of Advocacy and Government Relations, Joanne Lin, calling his visit “catastrophic for human rights in Indonesia.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, author of a law that prohibits U.S. military aid to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity, condemned the Trump administration’s decision and said Prabowo was “ineligible to enter this country.”

“By granting a visa to Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo, the President and Secretary of State have shown once again that for them ‘law and order’ is an empty slogan that ignores the importance of justice,” Leahy told Reuters.

Prabowo enlisted in the military aged 19 and six years later joined Kopassus, the army special forces. He led Team Mawar, or the ‘Rose Team,’ which is accused of kidnapping student activists who were involved in the movement to overthrow Suharto. Thirteen activists from that time remain missing.

Prabowo has consistently denied his involvement in any alleged human rights abuses, including in Jakarta, East Timor and also West Papua.

Still, he has become an influential political player, who has repeatedly sought the presidency and could stand again in the coming years.

The United States is expected to renew warnings to Jakarta against major arms purchases from Moscow, a refrain that comes up often with partners around the world. Purchasing Russian fighter jets could trigger U.S. sanctions under the U.S. Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), experts say.

“We raise CAATSA risk in all of our conversations with the Ministry of Defense,” the U.S. official said.

Indonesia’s defense ministry declined comment on Prabowo’s trip.

On Jakarta’s wish-list is a “roadmap” to procuring the F-35 fighter jet, an Indonesian government official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding officials were not optimistic.

“We don’t expect much to be honest,” the Indonesian official said.

Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali in Washington; Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Tom Allard in Jakarta; Editing by Stephen Coates

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