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UK's Prevent strategy linked to rights abuses in Indonesia

Rights group says British officials advised Jakarta on counter-extremism plan and may be complicit in quashing dissent in world's largest Muslim-majority country
Rights groups have accused Indonesia of violating religious freedoms of minorities and violating human rights of activists in West Papua (AFP)

The UK government risks being complicit in alleged human rights abuses including torture and forced disappearances in Indonesia by exporting elements of its controversial Prevent counter-extremism strategy to the world's largest Muslim-majority country, a rights group has warned.

In a report published earlier this month, Rights and Security International said that British officials could be helping the Indonesian government violate the freedom of religion for religious minorities by sending trainers to Jakarta to teach elements of the Prevent strategy to them.

"The UK government’s support for Indonesia’s P/CVE [preventing and countering violent extremism] approach is emblematic of its wider Prevent practices, both domestically and internationally: sidelining human rights laws, removing transparency and obscuring accountability processes," it said.

"In the UK, the government created a counter-extremism strategy that violates fundamental rights, including many of the rights we argue are being violated as part of Indonesia’s P/CVE strategy.

"We conclude that this is not a coincidence, and that the UK is either knowingly supporting repression and violence for its own political reasons, or choosing to ignore abundant evidence that Indonesian police, military and intelligence agencies are engaging in them."

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Jacob Smith, who authored the Exporting Prevent to Indonesia report, said the UK government had advised Indonesia to adopt a "Prevent-style counter-extremism" strategy when Jakarta reformed its National Action Plan on Countering Violent Extremism, or RAN, in 2021. 

"We found that most of the involvement [by British officials] was during the reform process of the RAN. What the UK government did was speak with officials and asked the drafting committee to look at the Prevent strategy and find ways to implement that," Smith told Middle East Eye.

"We also know that there was a form of training that the UK government offered to the drafting committee [of the RAN]. The UK government also conducted various training of law enforcement officers that doesn't directly influence the RAN but influences how they conduct their operations."

According to the report, one person involved in the drafting of the plan revealed that members of the drafting committee "had copies of the UK’s Prevent strategy next to them when drafting the RAN CVE".

The report said: "When we contacted the UK government to understand the degree of its involvement in creating Indonesia’s RAN CVE, it told us that it did hold information about its role, but declined our request to gain access to this information."

Other parallels with Prevent highlighted by Smith included RAN 's focus on a model of community policing that encourages people "within communities" to report on "other people becoming suspicious about their beliefs".

He said this operated in a similar way to how the Prevent Duty in the UK requires public bodies to report individuals considered at risk of being drawn into terrorism.

Reliance on community policing also had consequences for freedom of religion, the report said, with communities pushed towards promoting a state-sanctioned narrative of "religious moderation" which encouraged religious and community leaders to report people who exhibit "non-mainstream reliefs.

'Both countries’ P/CVE approaches perpetrate human rights harms, despite claiming to be methods of upholding human rights in the first place'

- Papang Hidayat, human rights activist 

Referring to the infiltration of religious and activist groups in the UK by undercover police officers and informants, it said UK officials were unlikely to object to the use of community-level surveillance techniques in Indonesia "and may even view such techniques with approval".

In a foreword to the RSI report, Papang Hidayat, an Indonesian human rights defender, said that many Indonesian activists had complained of being labelled "extremists" by government officials and politicians.

"Interestingly, my UK-based human rights friends tell me that, in recent years, UK politics has experienced ‘Indonesianization’, with UK government officials and other politicians labelling critics and political opponents as ‘extremists’ who try ‘to tear the UK apart’, fuelling fear among the population," Hidayat wrote.

"It seems that both countries’ P/CVE approaches perpetrate human rights harms, despite claiming to be methods of upholding human rights in the first place."

The UK government had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

Indonesia has faced heavy criticism for its human rights record, including its treatment of independence activists in Papua and West Papua.

Last month, in its annual human rights report, Amnesty International criticised Indonesia for its repeated use of excessive force to break up protests.

Amnesty also noted how Indonesia had passed new legislation that further restricted freedom of speech and said Jakarta had used an electronic information and transaction law and other restrictive laws to intimidate human rights defenders, journalists, and academics.

It also noted that a crackdown on political dissent in Papua and West Papua provinces continued to worsen.

The Indonesian government had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

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According to the RSI report, the UK has provided approximately £18m in foreign assistance for counter-extremism projects across Asia to countries accused of human rights abuses since 2014. 

Countries where the UK has funded projects against violent extremism include Bangladesh, India, Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines. 

Between 2016 and 2017, Britain also provided foreign assistance to countering violent extremism projects in China's Xinjiang province, which is home to the Uighur minority. China has been accused of sending millions of Uighurs to internment or re-education camps - a claim Beijing has denied.

The Prevent strategy, established in 2003 as part of the UK's counter-terrorism efforts, aims to identify and mitigate so-called radicalisation and extremism.

Critics of the strategy accuse it of targeting the Muslim community, with concerns mounting over the direction of the strategy after the UK government last month announced a new definition of extremism that has been widely criticised by politicians and rights groups.

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