New Inquiry into Indonesian Activist’s 2004 Murder Offers Hope For Truth

Eighteen years after iconic human rights defender (HRD) Munir was assassinated while traveling from Jakarta to Amsterdam, we might finally be a step closer to getting the full truth behind his murder.

By Brian Dooley

Eighteen years after iconic human rights defender (HRD) Munir was assassinated while traveling from Jakarta to Amsterdam, we might finally be a step closer to getting the full truth behind his murder.

Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) this month officially formed an ad hoc team to investigate if the murder constitutes a gross human rights violation. That determination would open the door to new prosecutions despite the statute of limitations running out and the prior acquittal of a suspect in the case.

An autopsy carried out by the Dutch authorities at the time of Munir’s assassination showed that he died as a result of arsenic poisoning. Like many murdered human rights activists, his killing was preceded by threats and attacks. In 2003, a bomb exploded outside his home in Jakarta. That same year, and the year before, mobs attacked the office of the human rights NGO where he worked, KontraS.

Human Rights First has worked with KontraS over many years, and in 2005 supported an advocacy effort which led to 68 Members of U.S. Congress calling on the Indonesian authorities to reveal the full truth about what happened to Munir. The following year Human Rights First honored Munir and his wife Suciwati with our Human Rights Defender Award. With other organizations, we’ve long pressed for an investigation that uncovers the whole truth, and this new announcement is a promising move.

Because past efforts have led nowhere, it is important that the investigative team has a strong mandate and the full support of Indonesia’s Attorney General and President. With Komnas HAM in a lame duck period, there must also be an explicit plan to carry the inquiry and its recommendations into the human rights commission’s next session.

Usually known simply as Munir, Munir Said Thalib was a popular guy, a jazz lover who worked on cases of forcible disappearances in the last months of the Suharto government in 1998. He also uncovered evidence of security force responsibility for human rights violations in Aceh, Papua, and Timor-Leste.

Munir had powerful enemies among the Indonesian authorities.  The new investigation could provide fresh details about what happened to him, and why. The five-person team at Komnas HAM can recommend the case be brought before a human rights court, and if the full commission declares the murder a serious human rights crime – specifically a Crime against Humanity – the case can avoid statute of limitations and double jeopardy issues. Unless more time is granted, the process is due to take three months, followed by a recommendation.

“The story of Munir is the story of Indonesia’s struggle for human rights and democracy,” said former Human Rights First staff member Matt Easton, who has written a new book about Munir’s murder. “If the new inquiry is a whitewash, or if its recommendations gather dust, neither story can end well.”

Accountability can take a long time, but it’s vital that perpetrators understand those pushing for justice don’t shrug their shoulders and give up after a few years. Whether in Indonesia, Northern Ireland, or other places around the world, Human Rights First continues to support those struggling, decade after decade, for answers.

This effort matters not just to know what really happened years ago, but because impunity for past human rights violations fuels those of the present.

Indonesian NGOs are gathering evidence that Munir’s murder was part of a larger widespread attack on HRDs.  Earlier this month, KontraS and nine other Indonesia-based and international NGOs submitted a report to the UN Universal Periodic Review Process that outlined the extent of continuing attacks against HRDs in Indonesia. Fatia Maulidiyanti, Coordinator of KontraS, noted that Indonesia still does not have comprehensive laws protecting HRDs, and that KontraS has documented “687 cases of violence against human rights defenders in the last five years.”

The Indonesian government should fully support Komnas HAM’s investigation, and swiftly take up the commission’s recommendations.

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Published on September 22, 2022

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