Culture of Impunity in Indonesia Lives on Nine Years After the Assassination of Munir

On September 7, 2004 Munir Said Thalib, one of Indonesia’s most important activists and the 2006 recipient of our Human Rights First Award, was traveling from Jakarta to Amsterdam, where he planned to pursue a Master’s degree in international law and human rights. But during the flight he was murdered with arsenic.

Nine years later, his wife Suciwati is still calling for a full investigation.

There are three main suspects in his death – Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, a former pilot who allegedly gave up his business class seat to Munir, and two flight attendants. It is alleged that Priyanto placed the arsenic in Munir’s orange juice on orders from the state-owned airline’s chief executive at that time, Indra Setiawan. Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced that he would make sure that Munir’s killers were brought to justice, and in December 2005 Priyanto was found guilty by an Indonesian court and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. Claims that Priyanto was acting on orders weren’t brought up during the trial.

In October 2006, the Indonesian Supreme Court released Priyanto and invalidated his conviction, citing insufficient evidence, but in 2008 police presented new evidence and he was resentenced to 20 years in prison. Who ordered the assassination of Munir has never been established by law enforcement agencies.

Munir was the founder of KontraS, The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence. Haris Azhar, executive director of KontraS, told Human Rights First, “The Munir case is facing the silence of President Yudhoyono. He has lost sight of his constitutional commitment to uphold justice and the rights of the people, in this case to Munir. The fact that the Munir case has been stagnant after nine years proves the ambiguity of human rights in Indonesia. On one hand reform has been used to legitimize power, but on the other hand impunity continues.”

Government officials and law enforcement authorities often commit abuses with impunity in Indonesia. In a positive development, however, last week a military court convicted defendants in the Cebongan prison incident, in which four detainees were assassinated in their cell on March 23 by eleven members of Kopassus, an Army special forces group. The detainees had been imprisoned for allegedly murdering a Kopassus sergeant, and investigators said the motive for the detainees’ murders was revenge. The killings sparked a public outcry and evoked dark memories of the three-decade dictatorship of Suharto, when the army often acted with impunity. On April 5, Indonesian President Yudhoyono delivered a speech criticizing the soldiers for taking the law into their own hands, calling the killings an act of “brutality.”

A three-judge panel found one of the members of Kopassus guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced him to 11 years. Two others were given six and eight years in prison, and five more sentenced to a year and nine months.

Lawyers for the accused said they would appeal. Human rights organizations in Indonesia are concerned that these verdicts might be reversed on appeal while some activists say the tribunal should have gone further. “Military Courts on the Cebongan case failed to bring the truth of what happened in Yogyakarta during March 19-23 to light. The verdict did not extend to the failure to protect the four civilians in the prison by the commanders and the local police. This situation seriously undermines the credibility of the military and Kopassus,” Azhar told Human Rights First.

The issue of impunity is likely to surface again during the 2014 presidential election. Prabowo Subianto is leading in the polls, though human rights activists say isn’t fit to head the country. During the Suharto era, he was allegedly involved in violent crackdowns on protesters, and he has been banned from traveling to both the United States and Australia.

Even though the Cebongan prison verdict provides a measure of justice for the families of the victims, much more needs to be done to address impunity in Indonesia. The U.S. should apply pressure on the Indonesian government to renew efforts in the Munir case and to ensure accountability for those in high ranking positions who order human rights abuses.


Published on September 9, 2013


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