Heat on Indonesia over activist’s killing

Before flying to the South-East Asian summit in Laos on Monday, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono promised an independent investigation into the death of Indonesia’s most famous human rights activist, Munir Said Thalib.

Munir's family have waited two months for an autopsy report
Munir's family have waited two months for an autopsy report

But the promise may be one of Susilo’s most difficult challenges, particularly if there is, as widely suspected, military involvement.

Popularly known as Munir, the 38-year-old mysteriously died of arsenic poisoning on a Garuda Indonesia flight to Amsterdam two months ago.

Munir was probably Indonesia’s best-known activist. He dared to expose the brutality of the security forces in remote provinces such as Aceh and Papua, as well as abuses against students and democracy agitators during the overthrow of Suharto in 1998.

More recently, Munir campaigned against an expanded intelligence bill, which allowed the information collected by the military and intelligence forces to be used to detain or prosecute alleged terrorists.

Legal worries

Munir and others feared that such a law would be used against political opponents of the government, just as colonial era anti-rebellion laws were used to suppress government critics during the 32-year rule of former dictator Suharto.

Munir was one of the few Indonesian activists to monitor and criticise the massive military operation launched in Aceh last May, which was aimed at ending the 28-year long separatist guerrilla war.

Rachland Nashidik, from Imparsial, the rights group Munir led, initially intimated that the military was the prime suspect in Munir’s death because of his outspoken criticism of this powerful institution.

Military might

But observers say that if an investigation does point to the military, it may be impossible to uncover who ordered the killing.

“If we look at past human rights abuses, it’s very difficult to make an independent investigation,” says military analyst Riza Sihbudi.

In 1998 the events known as Semanggi I and II, and Trisakti resulted in several peaceful student protesters being mysteriously shot, allegedly by security forces. However, no soldier was ever put on trial for the incidents.

“Semanggi I and II, Trisakti, and even Tanjung Priok in 1984, they all involved the TNI and were difficult to solve,” adds Sihbudi, using the Indonesian acronym for the Indonesian military.

“So if Munir’s death is in any way linked to the military, it’s difficult to make clear who is behind it.”


If Munir’s family was in any doubt where not to look, last weekend Munir’s widow, Suciwati, was sent a dismembered chicken. Attached to the chicken was a message warning her not to link the death to the military, or else she would end up like the chicken.

Suciwati was sent a dismemberedchicken in the post as a threat

Suciwati was sent a dismembered
chicken in the post as a threat

Suciwati has still not received a copy of her husband’s autopsy report and it has only been in the past fortnight, under pressure from Suciwati and Munir’s colleagues, that Indonesian police have formally lodged an investigation into the murder.

Dutch authorities, have also been criticised because, for unclear reasons, it took the Dutch Forensic Institute two months to complete the autopsy. Afterwards the Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry refused to release the results to Munir’s family, instead sending a translated copy to the Indonesian government, via its embassy in Jakarta. 

Dutch demands

Members of the Dutch parliament this week called for an emergency debate on why the foreign ministry took so long to release the autopsy results, and why Munir’s family was denied a copy.

Suciwati also met with the president last week to ask for a copy of the autopsy report and a full investigation into her husband’s murder. According to presidential spokesman Andi Mallerangeng, Susilo promised to, “do everything necessary to conclude the case”.

But even in cases where Jakarta convened a special human rights court, such as for the killing of 1500 civilians in East Timor during the 1999 independence vote, those convicted were either only low-level soldiers or else Timorese militia.

Despite numerous investigations and calls for independent trials in several human rights cases, no senior officer has ever been convicted of a human rights violation since Suharto’s downfall, points out Sihbudi.


And none of the investigations revealed who was the mastermind behind these abuses.

International rights groups such as Amnesty International and the Right Livelihood Award Foundation have called for a full inquiry into the activist’s death.

Despite the considerable international and local pressure on Jakarta, there are doubts about the police’s willingness to investigate the case. Indonesia detached a team of police to Holland to obtain a copy of the original autopsy results – an apparent requirement under Indonesian law for any investigation.

Language barrier

Except that the police sent to Amsterdam did not speak English or Dutch, and so have had difficulties working with officials there, says Usman Hamid, a colleague of Munir’s who also went to Amsterdam to request a copy of the autopsy.

Police sent to Amsterdam could not speak Dutch or English

Police sent to Amsterdam
could not speak Dutch or English

Late last week Indonesian police finally obtained the original autopsy report but now they say they want to perform another autopsy on Munir’s body.

With serious doubts about the police’s ability to conduct a thorough investigation, Nashidik asked the president to include independent monitors in the investigation team.

Independent observers

Nashidik has proposed Syafii Maarif, the respected head of a leading Muslim organisation Muhammidiyah, an anti-corruption lawyer, Todung Mulya Lubis, and Asmara Nababan, from the National Commission for Human Rights, among others.

Susilo has promised to give a reply to Imparsial’s proposal when he returns from Vientiane on Thursday, said Nashidik.

But Munir’s case is raising suspicions that two other prominent figures who challenged powerful forces may have been poisoned.

In April, Muhammad Yamin, a well-known prosecutor who had been investigating several high profile corruption cases died while travelling in Bali.

The prosecutor had been eating at a countryside warung (small restaurant) was rushed to Sanglah, Bali’s major public hospital, but died en route. Doctors claimed he had a heart attack, despite Yamin having no history of heart problems.

Further mysteries 

In 2001, the famously uncorrupt Attorney General Bacharuddin Lopa, allegedly suffered a heart attack while making a pilgrimage to Makka, Saudi Arabia. He died in Riyadh and an autopsy was never performed.

Suharto ruled for years 32 years

Suharto ruled for years 32 years

Lopa’s daughter, Masyita, told respected weekly Tempo that her family always thought her father’s death was suspicious. Both men were vomiting violently before they died, a classic symptom of acute arsenic poisoning.

Perhaps this is the first time assassination via poisoning has been detected, points out Nashidik.

“Perhaps Munir was the third victim after Yamin and Lopa,” he says.

“I think the police should have the curiosity to investigate these cases because there was never any autopsy. And up to this day we don’t know exactly what was the real cause of death,” says Nashidik.

Source : Al Jazeera

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