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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July/August 2004, pages 38-39

Islam and the Mideast in the Far East

Freed in Iraq, Japanese Hostages Experience Second Ordeal at Home

By John Gee

Free-lance journalist Junpei Yasuda (r), 30, and peace activist Nobutaka Watanabe, 36, the last of five Japanese who had been held hostage in Iraq, hold a press conference after arriving in Amman April 18, four days after they were captured as they tried to enter the besieged town of Fallujah. The freed hostages said their masked abductors had neither harmed nor threatened them (AFP photo/Khalil Mazraawi). 


FIVE YOUNG Japanese taken hostage in Iraq faced a further ordeal when they returned home in April. Not only did their government treat them with hostility, but a large section of the popular press indulged in a campaign of character assassination that took them to task for their family backgrounds, personal beliefs, and social behavior.

Attention was focused on three of the five shown on a video released April 8 by their captors, who threatened to burn the hostages to death one by one if Japan did not withdraw its troops from Iraq. Tearful relatives of the three spoke to the media, begging Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to comply. He, however, refused to give way. Although most Japanese had opposed the deployment of their troops to Iraq, polls showed that around two-thirds supported Koizumi’s stand. All five hostages were released unharmed within days.

As soon as they were known to be safe, members of the government parties launched into criticisms of the hostages, particularly the first three. They were condemned for going to Iraq despite a government travel advisory to private citizens not to go. For this reason, the Foreign Ministry said, they would be billed for the costs of their post-release medical examination and their plane tickets home. Prime Minister Koizumi was reported to have been particularly incensed by Nahoko Takato’s statements in Baghdad that she wanted to continue her work with street children in Iraq and that “I just cannot hate the Iraqi people.”

The pro-government popular press suggested that the three had not really been hostages at all, but had willingly lent themselves to a scheme to embarrass the Koizumi government in an election year.

Photojournalist Soichiro Koriyama, 32, was described as coming from a broken home and having his ambition to be a professional cyclist dashed when he had a serious accident. He had fallen in with the other two in Jordan, where they were said to have swayed him from his original intention of visiting Israel.

The mother of Noriaki Imai, an 18-year-old student, is a member of the Communist Party, and his father is a schoolteacher—said to be a profession teeming with leftists. Last year Noriaki set up an NGO to campaign for a ban on depleted uranium weapons. This led to his decision to go to Iraq—where he knew such weapons had been used—to gather material for a campaign book. He hopes to continue his education at the Peace Studies department in Bradford University, England.

Nahoko Takoto, 34, helped homeless teenagers in Baghdad to find shelter and to kick their drug habits. Among her other sins, according to press reports, was smoking cigarettes at the age of 12, puffing marijuana at 15, developing a strong desire to help the world’s poor following a visit to India, and still being single when already in her thirties. It was implied that, having used drugs herself, it was hypocritical of her to do anti-drug work in Baghdad, and she was alleged to have had prior contact with her kidnappers. Takoto’s family was sent hate mail, and an Internet site labeled her “Japan’s shame.”

Two hostages held by another group were also branded as leftists. Free-lance journalist Junpei Yasuda had originally gone to Iraq last year as a “human shield,” in hope of helping to protect Iraqi civilians during the impending war. Nobutaka Watanabe is an anti-war activist who wanted to monitor the conduct of Japanese and U.S. troops.

The hostile articles played upon readers’ prejudices, particularly their suspicion of unconventional and non-conformist behavior. No elaboration was needed upon statements that Imai was concerned about social issues while his fellow school students were into video games, or that Takoto’s family “allowed” her to go to Iraq: such deeds were supposed to be self-evidently evil. The campaign of vilification not only served the government’s electoral needs, but gave a warning to young Japanese people about the acceptable boundaries of dissent.

Once the venom and bigotry is disregarded, what emerges from the reports is a picture of young people who had beliefs and principles upon which they had the courage to act, using nonviolent means. Some would say that, far from being “Japan’s shame,” they ought to be treated, at the least, with respect.

Ripples From Abu Ghraib

“It is ironic that torture and sexual abuse were committed by the military of a country that always claims to be the world’s human rights guardian,” said Major Farid Ma’ruf, according to an agency report in Indonesia’s Jakarta Post (“Kopassus slams Iraq prisoner abuse,” May 19, 2004). Ma’ruf was commenting on reports and photos of the ill-treatment and torture of Iraqis held at Abu Ghraib prison. The major is a spokesman for Indonesia’s special forces brigade, generally known by its acronym, Kopassus.

Kopassus has been reinvented twice. In the 1960s, it was known as RPKAD and was modeled on an elite unit of Holland, the former colonial power. Subsequently, as Indonesia’s relations with Washington warmed and unit members trained with the U.S. military, it looked to the Green Berets as its inspiration—even though, while operating in uniform, Kopassus soldiers wear red berets. RPKAD spearheaded the October 1965 wave of killings of suspected leftists in Central Java following an alleged communist coup attempt: at least half a million people were killed as the slaughter spread.

Re-named Kopassandha, the unit began its long involvement in East Timor following Indonesia’s December 1975 invasion of the former Portuguese colony. Until talks were held between the Timorese resistance and the Indonesian army in 1983, Kopassus took no prisoners: all those captured were held in its own interrogation centers, where they were tortured, questioned and killed as a matter of routine. Kopassus was later instrumental in organizing the militia violence that devastated East Timor following its pro-independence vote in 1999.

From 1989 until 1998, Kopassus headed the brutal counterinsurgency campaign in Aceh, in northwestern Indonesia, and remains very active there. Its members also serve in West Papua. On Nov. 10, 2001, Theys Eluay, a respected pro-independence campaigner, accepted a dinner invitation at the Kopassus headquarters in Jayapura, West Papua’s capital. He was abducted a few minutes after leaving and his body discovered the next day. Seven Kopassus soldiers later received short prison sentences for meting out ill-treatment leading to Eluay’s death.

Kopassus knows something about human rights abuses—and, it appears, about irony, too. For one of its officers to criticize the conduct of U.S. soldiers in Abu Ghraib is obviously hypocritical, but there’s another point worth considering here. In trying to sell its war on Iraq to the American people and the rest of the world, the Bush administration has tried to portray it as a struggle to promote democracy and human rights. What happened at Abu Ghraib can now be used by the likes of Kopassus as justification for their own actions and as a shield it can hold up whenever it is targeted for criticism. As Major Ma’ruf sees it:

“The United States has criticized the Indonesian army and Kopassus as human rights abusers, but now that their own immoral soldiers have ignored the universal values of human rights and insulted human beings like that, where are their principles?”

The ill-treatment and torture of Iraqi prisoners occurred because U.S. forces were sent into a war in which they would end up as an army of occupation attempting to impose its will upon a fiercely independent people. They were sent, moreover, by an administration whose foreign policy perspectives were strongly influenced by neoconservative ideologues. One of those individuals is Paul Wolfowitz, now U.S. deputy secretary of defense, but from 1986 to 1989 U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. While in Indonesia, Wolfowitz spoke of the virtues of democracy and was known to have given cautious encouragement to some individuals and groups working to make their country more open and tolerant. The war he lobbied for with great fervor is not doing that cause any favors today. The neocons, in their pre-war grand designs, painted a picture of regime change in Iraq promoting democratization and respect for human rights in other countries, but in Indonesia—as, no doubt, in many other countries—the Iraq war instead has assisted human rights abusers.

Final Indonesian Election Results

Voter turnout in Indonesia’s general election was high—an impressive 84 percent of those eligible turned out to cast their ballots.

Golkar, formerly the major political party prop of the Suharto regime, which fell in 1998, emerged as the largest party in the new parliament, with 21.58 percent of the vote. Its poll share changed little from the 1999 elections, but President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle) lost its leading position when its vote plummeted from 34 to 18.53 percent. The other parties that scored more than five percent of the vote (the margin above which a party may nominate a candidate for the presidency) were: National Awakening Party (PKB), led by former President Abdurahman Wahid, 10.57 percent; United Development Party (PPP—an Islamic party) with 8.15 percent; Democrat Party (PD—a new organization headed by presidential hopeful and former security boss, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) with 7.45 percent; the modernist Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), with 7.34 percent; and the National Mandate Party (PAN), headed by the present speaker of parliament, Amien Rais (6.44 percent).

The total number of parliamentary seats has been expanded to 550. Thanks to the imbalances of an electoral system deliberately weighted to give the regions a greater say in national politics than their population size alone might warrant, the outcome in seats (with 1999 figures in brackets) was:

Golkar: 128 (120)

PDI-P: 109 (153)

PPP: 58 (58)

PD: 57 (-)

PAN: 52 (34)

PKB: 52 (51)

PKS: 45 (forerunner party, 7)

Of 124.4 million votes cast, 10.9 million—nearly 8.8 percent—were rejected at the count as invalid. That was due partly to the large number of competing parties and the sheer size of the ballot papers (see June 2004 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,), but also to the ruling that votes cast for candidates alone (without a vote for a party) would be invalid. 


John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore, and author of Unequal Conflict: the Palestinians and Israel, available from the AET Book Club.