Getting away with mid-air murder

Sep 5, 2022
Munir Said Thalib posters on wall
Image: Flickr / antonkurniawan

Studying in Europe was to be a highlight of Munir Said Thalib’s career. The voice of the Indonesian activist and forceful critic of the army’s human rights record was being heard internationally. His opponents hoped a spell abroad might silence the censure. Instead, it was amplified. Now it’ll be turned off as time for action expires.

On 7 September 2004 when Munir headed to Utrecht University for a master’s degree in international law he chose the state carrier Garuda. That was a fatal mistake.

GA 974 stopped over in Singapore, giving passengers kill-time chats with fellow travellers. One was Pollycarpus Priyanto, an off-duty Garuda pilot doubling as an undercover intelligence agent. He gave his new friend an orange juice – then zapped back to Jakarta.

Munir collapsed in agony two hours from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. He was dead on arrival, aged 38. A Netherlands Forensic Institute autopsy showed his body had enough arsenic to kill three men. It’s a tasteless and odourless poison.

The Indonesian police laid murder charges against Pollycarpus. He was found guilty, jailed, released, retried, rejailed, released and died aged 59 in 2020 apparently from Covid. But Munir’s widow Suciwati, a former teacher and union leader and her supporters, stayed angry. They reckoned Polycarpus was acting on the orders of others.

In October 2007 Garuda CEO Indra Setiawan was convicted of providing Polycarpus with fake documents so he could be on Munir’s flight. He got a year behind bars.

That same year a Jakarta court ordered Garuda to pay Rp 664 million ($65,000) compensation to Suciwati for not making an emergency landing.

She then confronted the then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – a former Army general. He promised her justice and convened an independent investigation. This went nowhere as senior officials refused to testify.

A museum outside Malang in East Java commemorates Munir’s life which largely involved making powerful enemies. He accused the army of human rights violations against dissidents in East Timor and the provinces of Papua and Aceh and running illegal tree logging and drug smuggling rackets.

He founded the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence known as KontraS. This NGO remains a strident voice in society.

Now Suciwati et al have few chances of finding the truth; the Criminal Code’s statute of limitations will this month cancel all legal actions. Eighteen years of stalling have led to attrition defeating justice.

The Munir justice team fingered Muchdi Purwoprandjono as mastermind of the assassination. He’d been a deputy of the State Intelligence Agency known as BIN.

In an early stage of his army career, Muchdi was chief of Kopassus (Special Forces). He was relieved of command after the 1998 fall of President Soeharto when held responsible for the abductions of 23 student activists. One was found dead, nine were released. The rest have vanished.

Muchdi was charged with commissioning and assisting in the murder of Munir because the lawyer’s campaigning had led to the general’s downfall. Evidence showed Muchdi had been in regular contact with Polycarpus. The SMH reported the trial featured:

‘Hundreds of crew-cut, muscular men in black, gangs of street thugs and flag-waving militia singing Indonesia’s national anthem besieged South Jakarta Court yesterday, decrying murder charges against (Muchdi) … a show of force against judges and prosecutors.’

The evidence seemed damning. Court records revealed 41 phone calls between Muchdi and Pollycarpus. A four-page document canvassed ways to dispose of the troublesome stirrer – shooting, beating, poisoning and – because this is Indonesia – black magic.

Using Trump-style tactics Muchdi hit back, accusing unnamed ‘henchmen of foreign imperialism, trying to destabilise Indonesia’s national resilience’ behind his trial. Their ‘long-term goal’ was ‘to weaken Indonesia’s justice, political, economic and religious institutions.‘ No evidence was provided.

While the trial was underway Melbourne University academic Tim Lindsey and researcher Jemma Parsons wrote that a convicted Muchdi would be ‘the first senior member of the powerful military and intelligence apparatus to face the consequences of the violent abuses of human rights that have been its stock-in-trade for almost half a century.

‘Before the fall of former president Suharto in 1998, military and government officials enjoyed an informal but very effective immunity that put them above the law and allowed the government to routinely use murder, violence and abduction as political tools.’

Muchdi was acquitted. He’s now 73, a businessman and a politician with a party run by Soeharto’s notorious playboy son Tommy. In 2002 he was convicted of masterminding the assassination of a judge who’d sentenced him for corruption.

For this killing Tommy copped 15 years jail but served only four years in a luxury cell where he was reportedly allowed to entertain girlfriends in private and make one pregnant.

Back to the Munir case and what chance of a resolution to satisfy his supporters? President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo is reportedly setting up an expert group to resolve past serious human rights violations, but by-passing the courts.

A Jakarta Post editorial commented: ‘In almost all the 13 cases of serious human rights violations most often cited (an estimated million-plus victims since 1965), the hands of the Indonesian Military are found everywhere, and this is one probable reason why these cases remain buried and have never reached the courts.’

Attempts to launch a truth and reconciliation commission under previous presidents have all misfired. If this latest shot misses the target, Muchdi’s place beyond the range of the law will be confirmed. But the Republic’s reputation will suffer collateral damage.

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