Indonesia stadium crush trial hit by claims of intimidation

Police were filmed heckling prosecutors at trial of five people, including three police officers, over disaster that killed 135 people.

Police moving into position with riot shields outside the court in Surabaya. The shields are black and have the word POLISI written on them in yellow.
The trial is taking place amid heavy security in Surabaya [File: Juni Kriswanto/AFP]

Medan, Indonesia – Members of Indonesia’s Mobile Brigade Corps known as Brimob – a special operations and paramilitary branch of the National Police – have tried to disrupt the trial of five people, including three police officers, over last year’s stadium crush that left 135 people dead.

Video shared on social media showed the officers, dressed in their distinctive navy-blue berets, jeering and heckling as prosecutors arrived on February 14 at the ongoing trial into the crush at the Kanjuruhan Stadium in the city of Malang.

Police, including Brimob officers, fired tear gas indiscriminately into the stands at the end of the October match between local team Arema FC and rivals Persebaya Surabaya, as fans fled in panic.

“We consider the behaviour of the dozens of Brimob officers a form of contempt of court because their attitude was disgraceful and inappropriate, and a form of intimidation against the Public Prosecutor,” Indonesia’s Legal Aid Institute, in conjunction with several other civil society groups, said in a statement on Wednesday following the court incident.

The statement added that the officers’ behaviour showed a clear abuse of power and was designed to disrupt the legal process.

The three police officers facing court are Wahyu S Wahyu, the chief of operations of the Malang Regency Police, Hasdarman, the commander of the 3rd Mobile Brigade Company of the East Java Police and Bambang Sidik Achmadi, the head of the Prevention Unit of the Malang Regency Police. Security officer Suko Sutrisno and match organising committee chairman Abdul Haris are also on trial.

The men are accused of failing to carry out basic security checks and allowing the use of tear gas in the stadium, despite its prohibition by FIFA, which regulates the sport around the world.

The men are charged under Indonesia’s Criminal Code with negligence leading to death and negligence leading to bodily harm, with the prosecution asking for prison terms of six years and eight months for the two civilian defendants. The prosecution has yet to announce its sentencing demands for the three police officers.

The case is yet another challenge for the judicial system in the face of police violence, with Indonesia’s National Police, known as Polri, also in the dock in other cases in Indonesia’s courts.

Much of the Kanjuruhan trial has taken place at the same time as the trial of Ferdy Sambo – the former head of Indonesia’s Internal Affairs department and one of the country’s most senior police officers.

On Monday, Sambo was sentenced to death for the premeditated murder of his aide-de-camp Brigadier Nofriansyah Yosua Hutabarat.

Two other police officers, Ricky Rizal Wibowo and Richard Eliezer were also sentenced to 13 years and one and a half years imprisonment, respectively for their roles in the crime, which also involved allegations of a widespread police cover-up involving dozens of police personnel.

Conflicts of interest?

The Kanjuruhan trial has been under scrutiny since it began last month, with lawyers and human rights groups registering their concerns even before the video of the Brimob officers emerged.

In addition to the criminal trial, there are two ongoing civil proceedings that have experienced similar problems, according to those involved.

Imam Hidayat, a lawyer representing some of the victims in one of the civil cases, told Al Jazeera there had been “no respect” from the authorities following the tragedy and that the police had not processed the case in accordance with standard practices, including not properly filing documents or providing victims and their families with the correct paperwork.

“There is a real lack of seriousness about how they have handled this case and a lack of professionalism,” he said.

Hidayat said there was a conflict of interest in having the police investigate a case in which three police officers are on trial and that some of the defendants’ legal counsel had also come from the police ranks.

“There needs to be an independent team of investigators dealing with the victims and their families. The police obviously have a conflict of interest in this case and it is causing power struggles. They cannot be objective and there is a lack of transparency,” he said.

In the wake of the tragedy, the head of the Indonesian National Police, Listyo Sigit Prabowo sacked the Malang Chief of Police, Ferli Hidayat, and relieved nine officers from Brimob of their duties.

Usman Hamid, the head of Amnesty Indonesia, told Al Jazeera there had been several worrying issues with the legal process, which “showed that the case was not being investigated transparently and independently”.

According to Hamid, these issues included a limit on the number of people allowed to be present at court and requiring journalists to register in advance to cover the proceedings. The defendants in the criminal case also originally appeared in court via video link due to purported security concerns.

“Meanwhile, the president, the chief of police and other representatives of the government were absent at the hearing at Malang District Court, resulting in a delay in the legal process,” Hamid said. “This is also a sign that President Joko Widodo’s promise that the government will guarantee the fulfilment of victims’ rights was merely words”.

Mahfud MD, Indonesia’s Minister for Politics and Law, was not available to respond to Al Jazeera’s questions about the trial. Prabowo, the chief of police, did not respond to requests for comment.

A video screen showing the start of the trial into the Malang football disaster, with the judges on one side and defendants on the other. The accused initially appeared on video link
At the start of the trial, the accused appeared via video link because of security concerns [File: Juni Kriswanto/AFP]

Elmiati, whose three-year-old son Muhammad Virdy Prayoga died along with her husband Rudi Hariyanto in the crush, told Al Jazeera she was involved in one of the civil cases in Malang but that she felt abandoned by the legal process.

“There have been no more donations since the incident first happened and there was no follow-up to the promise from the government that the victims’ families would be helped to find work,” she said. “There has been no help for my other child who is in school and no one wants to take responsibility for what happened.”

She said she was looking for a job but that it was being made difficult considering her circumstances and the stress caused by all the irregularities with the criminal and civil cases.

‘So many threats’

Another plaintiff, who is involved in both the criminal and civil trials and who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said he had had to enter witness protection as a result of the tragedy.

Having lost two of his children in the crush, he said he was now having to move houses every few days due to threats and is under the care of Indonesia’s Witness Protection Programme.

“There are so many threats, from the authorities, from thugs and from football management,” he said. “They want me to withdraw from the cases and not give evidence in court. But I’m still going to try.”

“What we are seeing is a legal vacuum and a void where there is no law being applied,” lawyer Hidayat said.

Meanwhile, the Legal Aid Institute said in its statement that action should be taken against the Brimob officers who heckled the court.

“We condemn the actions of members of the police who were arrogant, intimidating and committed contempt of court,” the statement said. “We call on the Chief of Police to stop such behaviour from interfering with the impartiality and integrity of the court process.”

Source: Al Jazeera