Murder of Activist Part of Wider Conspiracy Says Judge

Human right activists carrying posters of murdered leading rights activist Munir shout slogans in front of a court in Jakarta last week. (Photo: Bay Ismoyo / AFP-Getty Images)

The conviction of an airline pilot with strong links to Indonesia's intelligence services for the 2004 murder of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib has raised serious questions over the shadowy role of the security forces in the controversial case. In a Jakarta court last week, judges handed down a jail term of 14 years to Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto — a punishment far less severe than the life imprisonment sought by the prosecution — describing the defendant's role as that of a minor part of a wider conspiracy, confirming long held views by human rights activists in Indonesia.

"The defendant has been legitimately and convincingly proven guilty of involvement in planning the murder that resulted in the death of Munir," said presiding judge Cicit Sutiarsa in sentencing the defendant. However, in an implicit criticism of the police authorities' handling of the case, judges at Central Jakarta District Court also requested that a wider police investigation be carried out in an attempt to uncover other parties alleged to have masterminded the operation.

"The defendant was not alone," said Judge Sutiarsa, "there is another party that legal authorities should find through a more thorough investigation."

Commenting on the judges' findings on Australian ABC radio, Asmara Nababan, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights and a colleague of Munir said, "The trial has constructed and proved that this crime is conspiracy crime, it's not individual crime as prosecutors indicted Pollycarpus as individual crime, but the court proved that it is a conspiracy."

"Of course the court did not mention who the other parties [are], especially who give the order to Pollycarpus to commit the crime. But it is clear that the court gives some indication that it needs to be followed up by the police," said Asmara.

Munir, one of Indonesia's most highly respected activists, was poisoned by a lethal dose of arsenic while flying on a Garuda flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam on Sept. 7, 2004. A subsequent autopsy conducted by Dutch authorities in Amsterdam found well over 460 milligrams of arsenic in Munir's stomach, over double the normally considered lethal dose. Suspicion had immediately fallen on Pollycarpus, a Garuda airlines pilot who had smuggled himself aboard the plane under false pretences and who had been seen talking to Munir on the Jakarta-Singapore leg of the flight, giving up his seat for the activist. However, Munir's colleagues suspect his death may have been ordered by other, more well connected conspirators, unhappy at Munir's tireless campaigning against government corruption.

Munir's widow Suciwati, who recently described Pollycarpus as a "façade" and a convenient scapegoat in the affair, has called on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to reconvene a special fact finding team to investigate the alleged involvement of Indonesia's security agencies. However, the President has refused the request saying to reporters that he considered it would be better if the usual law enforcement institutions were left to carry out their normal functions of enquiry.

"It is proper for the police to investigate, the Attorney General's Office (A.G.O.) to prosecute, the Supreme Court and lower judicial institutions to make the rulings," he said at a press conference.

The fact-finding team was originally formed in late 2004 by Yudhoyono but disbanded in June 2005 and the president has since refused to release the team's findings, which named possible suspects and urged further investigation by the police.

As cofounder of the human rights groups Kontras and Imparsial, Munir was considered one of Indonesia's most trenchant critics of his country's security forces and a vocal activist against government corruption. Working in defense of human liberties in his country, Munir represented many human rights campaigners in courts and was instrumental in uncovering military human rights abuses. It was his endless campaigning though that had long attracted the ire of Indonesia's notorious state intelligence service (B.I.N.) and it is the connections between Pollycarpus and members of this security agency that has raised suspicion of intelligence involvement in this case.

In the weeks prior to Munir's death, the court found evidence of at least 41 calls made between Pollycarpus and former deputy B.I.N. chief Muchdi Purwopranjono. However, Muchdi has denied calling Pollycarpus, saying other members of his office had use of his phone.

"I didn't make those communications, because my cell phone is often used by other people," said Muchdi in his testimony before the court on Nov. 17. Nevertheless Judge Cicit found that "the court has an opinion that an understanding has been reached between the defendant and the phone caller over the elimination of Munir's life."

Asmara Nababan also alleged that senior intelligence officers were complicit in the murder of Munir.

"I believe some of the officers and former officers of the B.I.N. involved, but we didn't know what their roles are in this conspiracy, it maybe goes to the top, to the top leader of the B.I.N.," he said in an interview on the Australian PM radio program.

General Sutanto, the National Chief of Police, has responded to requests for a more thorough investigation by offering Pollycarpus protection in exchange for any information he may be able to provide about alleged accomplices involved in the death of Munir.

"This way, we will be able to find out who was behind the murder of Munir," said Sutanto to reporters last Wednesday in Surabaya.

The case has been seen as an important test of President Yudhoyono's resolve to stamp out Indonesia's endemic government graft and his promise to bring to justice any member of his security services involved in criminal activities.

For more, see Who Killed Munir?

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