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updated 10/19/2010 4:32:41 AM ET 2010-10-19T08:32:41

A grisly video purporting to show Indonesian security forces torturing suspected separatists in Papua province — burning the genitals of one and running a knife across the neck of another — sparked public outcry Tuesday after being circulated on the Internet.

For many in the young democracy, the images were a reminder of the dark days of former dictator Suharto, who often used the military and police to stifle dissent, especially in far-flung regions with aspirations of independence.

Stories about the video made headlines in local newspapers Tuesday and expressions of anger filled commentary pages.

"It was shocking, every scene was barbaric," said Haris Azhar of the human rights group, Kontras, "The government has to find out who is behind such violence in Papua and bring them to court."

Body later found
The body of one of the victims, Werius Selenggen, was found near a river in late 2009 soon after security forces were caught on tape interrogating the 38-year-old in the mountainous village of Puncak Jaya, said Matius Murib, of the National Commission on Human Rights.

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When Selenggen said he didn't know anything about a hidden stash of weapons, one man threatened to shoot him in the mouth with a rifle and another poked at his genitals with a burning stick, causing him to scream in agony.

A third smashed a cigarette out in his face.

The identity and whereabouts of the second victim — threatened repeatedly with a heavy knife — were not immediately known.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country with more than 237 million people, took over Papua from the Dutch in 1963 and formalized its sovereignty six years later through a stage-managed vote by about 1,000 community leaders.

Human rights groups say more than 100,000 people — a fifth of the impoverished province's population — have died as result of military action.

Strides towards democracy
Indonesia has made tremendous strides toward democracy since Suharto was ousted from power just over a decade ago, implementing reforms that have freed the media and vastly improved human rights.

The government is highly sensitive to the ongoing separatist struggle in Papua, however, giving lengthy prison terms to activists for peacefully expressing their views, organizing rallies or for simply raising pro-independence flags.

It bars access to foreign journalists, human rights workers and academics, making it difficult to verify claims of abuse.

The 10-minute clip of Selenggen — a copy of which was obtained by the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission — is one of several that has found its way to the Internet in recent months.

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The Commission said that for security reasons it could not reveal how it obtained the footage, which can be seen on the activist group's website. Scenes showing genital mutilation have been edited out.

"The video is in two parts. The first shows military officers who have caught some villagers. They hit them, kick them and ask them to give names of separatists," the group's executive director Wong Kai Shing told Reuters by phone.

"In the second part, we see two people being tortured. One has a knife on his neck and in another scene, an interrogator tried to burn another man's penis with a burning stick."

Wong said the footage, which was taken in West Papua province, featured uniformed officers and showed that there was a culture of impunity within security forces.

Indonesian soldiers cannot be tried in civilian courts and military courts give only lenient sentences, he said.

Soldiers not police
None of the previous videos has created such a stir, in part because many people insist the perpetrators were not police — who are still struggling with a reputation for arbitrary arrests and torture — but soldiers.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, himself a former four-star general, has been largely successful in cleaning up the image of the armed forces since taking power six years ago.

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The U.S. even responded by restoring military ties, long severed over concerns of abuse. Washington recently said it would restart joint training exercises with the military's special forces unit, Kopassus, citing improvements in the military's human rights record.

"It probably happened in a different era and someone leaked it to make us look bad," said Lt. Col. Susilo, a provincial military spokesman, adding that an investigation will determine if the men, who were dressed in plain clothes, were soldiers or police.

"I promise you, if it does turn out these abuses were carried out recently, we'll find out who was responsible and we'll come down hard."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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