Kidnapper Recruits Victims in Presidential Tilt

JAKARTA ~ A former general running for the country’s presidency has gone to unusual lengths to shake a bloody reputation for human rights abuse, by recruiting activists he kidnapped 11 years ago.

Prabowo Subianto, the former head of the country’s notorious Kopassus special forces, is hoping the three activists will be his secret weapon as he leads his Gerindra Party into legislative elections next month.

The activists were plucked from the streets in the dying days of the Suharto military dictatorship in 1998, interrogated and – for the most part – tortured by Prabowo’s men.

But they say they have no problems supporting Prabowo, who is hoping a strong showing in the April polls will boost his chances in presidential elections in July.

“I’ll work with anyone, be they Prabowo or Satan, so long as they have the same political principles as me and my friends,” said Haryanto Taslam, who was once jailed by Prabowo’s men and now heads Gerindra’s media centre.

“He’s admitted his mistakes and apologised to me, so I think what can I make a fuss about,” asked Taslam, a former legislator for the Democratic Party of Struggle of ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is also making a comeback bid for president.

Such backing is music to Prabowo’s ears. The ex-general, who was once married to a daughter of Suharto and considered by some heir apparent to the strongman, stands accused of a string of rights abuses.

He has denied accusations that he organized terror squads in East Timor during Indonesia’s bloody 24-year occupation and that he orchestrated riots and mass rapes of ethnic Chinese women in Jakarta prior to Suharto’s fall.

But he has not shied away from responsibility for the kidnappings, telling foreign journalists last month his “conscience is clear” over the abductions and joking about the motives of the victims backing him.

“Some people say it’s Stockholm syndrome, but I would say that they know the real story and in fact many of them told me they were glad being in the hands of soldiers under General Prabowo,” he said.

Prabowo is hoping to get enough support in next month’s legislative poll to push him into contention for a July presidential vote against a likely field of challengers including incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a liberal ex-general.

The kidnap victims are key to that plan. Of the 23 activists abducted in 1997 and 1998, one is known to be dead, 13 are missing, and three are with Gerindra.

Desmond Mahesa, a lawyer abducted and held for two months by Prabowo’s men who is now one of two legislative candidates for Gerindra, said he does not absolve Prabowo of responsibility.

But he says Prabowo was just one of many who were involved in the abductions.

“Every military official working then was involved in the kidnappings,” Mahesa said, including Yudhoyono and ex-armed forces chief Wiranto, also a presidential contender.

Prabowo was simply saddled with all the blame after losing out in the palace power struggle that followed Suharto’s fall, Mahesa said.

“There are few people as brave as Prabowo in acknowledging they were involved in the kidnappings,” he said.

But not all victims are convinced. Raharja Waluya Jati was held in a cell for 45 days and tortured in what he suspects, but is not sure, was Kopassus headquarters.

At night, he communicated by yelling down the hall to the three kidnap victims now with Gerindra, and to friends who never returned.

“Prabowo needs the victims to get legitimacy and wash his bloody hands,” Jati said, adding the alliance was likely motivated by the victims’ own thirst for political power.

“I have four friends still missing now and when I talk to their families they just want to know about their sons. Prabowo knows about everything, including my friends who are still missing.”

Jati, now a human rights campaigner, said another explanation of Prabowo’s appeal to the former leftist activists could be Gerindra’s unique brand of populism.

The party, founded only last year, has positioned itself as a critic of the free market and champion of the poor, despite its standard-bearer’s penchant for playing polo.

It has also loudly proclaimed its support of Indonesian secularism and criticised Yudhoyono’s failure to tackle head-on the country’s Islamic extremist fringe.

This move towards the secular and stridently nationalist end of the political spectrum was signalled by the recruitment of Permadi, a former top lawmaker for Megawati and a democracy activist.

Permadi, a renowned paranormal and practitioner of ancient, pre-Islamic Javanese mysticism, said Prabowo’s history of rights abuses should not disqualify him from the presidency.

“Why shouldn’t someone with a dark past have a bright future?” asked Permadi in his party office, which is adorned with traditional kris daggers reputedly imbued with magic powers.

Permadi compared Prabowo to the ancient Javanese king Ken Arok, a thief who according to legend rose from poverty to the throne with the aid of cunning and black magic.

“What was Ken Arok like when he was young? A bastard, a rapist, a thief, a murderer. But when he became a king he was amazing. He became a just and wise king who started the bloodline of Javanese kings up to today,” he said.

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