Who Killed Munir?

Munir Said Thalib

Munir Said Thalib (Photo:

Human rights in the sense of human solidarity has created a new universal and equal language going beyond racial, gender, ethnic or religious boundaries. That is why we consider it a doorway to dialogue for people of all socioeconomic groups and all ideologies.
— Munir Said Thalib

With the police investigation into the poisoning of Munir Said Thalib — Indonesia’s leading human rights activist — seemingly stalled, his family and colleagues have linked his death to his tireless campaigning against corruption and human rights abuses. Opinions vary though on whom among his many enemies may have ordered the suspected assassination. Despite the interviewing of dozens of witnesses by Indonesian authorities, the identity of those responsible for the killing remains a mystery.

On the evening of Sept. 6, while flying on Garuda Flight 974 from Jakarta to Amsterdam to take up a scholarship to study international law at Utrecht University, the 38-year-old human rights campaigner and founder of the human rights organization Kontras became violently ill.

Suffering from acute diarrhea and bouts of vomiting shortly after the flight left the Indonesian capital, Munir was treated by a doctor on board the plane but pronounced dead a short time before the plane landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. While on the plane Munir had managed to send an SMS message to his wife Suciwati, claiming he was the victim of food poisoning.

A subsequent autopsy conducted by the Netherlands Forensic Institute in Amsterdam revealed that Munir had died of arsenic poisoning. Over 460 mg of undigested arsenic was discovered in Munir’s stomach and with any amount over 200mg normally considered lethal, the dose proved fatal to the slight-framed man.

Though this report was passed on to the Indonesian authorities, other evidence, including Dutch police records of interviews with fellow passengers and crew members along with other forensic material gathered by police, was not. Authorities advised their Indonesian counterparts that the evidence would be withheld because Dutch law prohibits them from forwarding such evidence in cases where the death penalty may result.

As Indonesia still retains capital punishment, the evidence will only be passed on to Indonesian authorities if President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono agrees to an exemption from the death penalty. However, no promise of immunity has been forthcoming.

Indeed Munir’s widow has questioned the president’s overall commitment to bringing her late husband’s killers to justice. At a ceremony to unveil a memorial to Munir, she speculated that the president was not genuine in his pledge to set up an independent investigative team into Munir’s death. Recalling the meeting at which Yudhoyono originally agreed to the request, Suciwati told the Sydney Morning Herald, “The president looked like he wanted to cry, but it was just an act. The president should be able to keep his word.”

Mourned throughout the world, Human Rights Watch deputy program director Joe Saunders led the eulogies for Munir in a press release following his death:

“Munir was in a class by himself, he had an electric intelligence and an encyclopedic memory. In meetings, he was able to draw on a kaleidoscope of detailed fact and sharp analytical insight to present a clear image of what needed to be done.”

In an open letter to Yudhoyono, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Geneva-based World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) concluded that Munir’s death was a political assassination, reminding the president, “Mr. Munir had played a leading role in investigating human rights violations committed by the Indonesian Army, notably in East Timor. He has taken up numerous cases of disappeared activists in Indonesia, from Aceh to Papua, during the Suharto dictatorship.”

An Activist’s Life

Beginning his activist career as a legal aid officer in Surabaya in 1989 during Suharto’s oppressive and dictatorial “New Order,” Munir became director of the Semarang Legal Aid Office before taking up the position as chief of field operations for the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) in Jakarta in 1996. Forming his own human rights watchdog organization Kontras in 1998, Munir was instrumental in bringing rights abuses to the fore in the dying days of the Suharto regime

In September 1999, following the fall of the Suharto regime, Munir was appointed to the state-sponsored Commission of Investigation into Human Rights Abuses in East Timor. The commission exposed abuses by the Indonesian military-sponsored militias in East Timor during the country’s quest for independence. In a travesty of justice, however, state prosecutors ignored the committee’s recommendations, refusing to convict any of the military or police personnel named by the commission as having committed human rights crimes.

As co-founder of Kontras and later Imparsial — a watchdog human rights group Munir founded along with 16 friends in 2002 — Munir represented many human rights campaigners in cases before the Indonesian courts and campaigned on behalf of many ethnic minorities throughout the Indonesian archipelago.

For his devotion to the cause of human rights, he received the Right Livelihood Award in 2000 for “his courage and dedication in fighting for human rights and the civilian control of the military in Indonesia.”

Throughout his life, Munir was unswerving in his quest to expose abuses by the government and military. Because of this, he made many enemies and was the target of almost continual harassment and numerous death threats, making the identification of those responsible for his death difficult. However, on Nov. 20, some weeks after his death, his wife Suciwati — also a prominent activist — received a package containing a decapitated chicken with a note warning, “Do not connect the TNI (Indonesian military) to Munir’s death. Want to end up like this?”

Not all of Munir’s colleagues blame the military for his demise though. Usman Hamid, the coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons, and now leader of Kontras, believes Munir’s death could have been the result of his recent corruption investigation into senior government officials.

Hamid, who went to the Netherlands to represent Munir’s family in the police enquiry, recently stated in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, “I was thinking this might be the case that, if he had a chance to publicize it, would make a big disturbance to the current ruler.”

In an attempt to deflect mounting criticism of the government’s apparent inaction, Cabinet Secretary Sudi Silalahi announced on Monday that the administration was in the process of drafting a document outlining the formation of an independent team to examine the circumstances surrounding Munir’s death.

“The minister [Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Widodo Adisutjipto] has been brainstorming with the family’s side and the lawyers to complete the draft,” Mr. Silalahi said to the Indonesian news site

Apologizing for the time it has taken to establish the investigative group, Silalahi said, “It’s not just enough to have professionals, but they must also be acceptable for involvement in the handling of the Munir case. So this is certainly not easy. So please understand if the formation takes a long time.”

However, Munir’s colleagues dismiss the government’s delay in appointing an independent investigative team as a crude delaying tactic, pointing out that they have already named a team of qualified experts ready and willing to serve on the committee.