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Crying out for lawful law enforcers in Indonesia

New national police chief has vowed to clean up the force but has a long way to go and needs public support

Crying out for lawful law enforcers in Indonesia

Students tend to their injured friends during a clash with police at a protest against a proposed change to criminal code laws outside Indonesia's parliament building in Jakarta on Sept. 24, 2019. (Photo: AFP)

Police brutality in Indonesia has made headlines again after a student was knocked unconscious by an officer during a recent protest.

The protest against local authorities in Tangerang in Banten province over issues such as air pollution, Covid-19 and damaged roads descended into chaos when police moved in to disperse protesters.

The clash between demonstrators and the police on Oct. 13 saw a policeman grab and slam university student Muhammad Fariz to the ground, knocking him cold. Although the officer has apologized and is now facing disciplinary action, such brutality rekindles memories of past police violence.

Established on July 1, 1946, the police force is one of the country’s oldest agencies. In 1962 it was merged with the military, but in 1999 after Suharto's fall it became an independent organization under the president’s direct auspices.

Despite its success in fighting terrorism, the 440,000-strong force — the biggest in Southeast Asia — is bedeviled by corruption, incompetence, violence and immoral actions.

When Listyo Sigit Prabowo, a Christian, was sworn in as police chief early this year by President Joko Widodo, he vowed to address these issues and push for a more softly-softly approach to enforcing the law.

Allegations of police brutality have also come from Christians in Papua and East Nusa Tenggara, which has become a profound concern for church people

However, change does not happen overnight, especially within such a giant organization with a long track record of malpractice. Calls for police reform have been made for years and yielded few results, so critics are skeptical about Prabowo’s clean-up vow.

According to the Indonesian Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), police committed a record number of human rights violations in 2020. It also noted that between January and September of this year, 78 out of 571 reported human rights violations committed by the police involved violence and torture.

Complaints included allegations of violence against journalists. Indonesia’s Independent Journalist Association said most of the 90 recorded cases of violence against journalists between May 2020 and May 2021 were committed by policemen.

Allegations of police brutality have also come from Christians in Papua and East Nusa Tenggara, which has become a profound concern for church people.

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The Indonesian Catholics Students Association is among church groups that dare to speak out against brutality, including the beating and kicking of student protesters in Christian-majority East Nusa Tenggara province in June. They were protesting against the relocation of hundreds of vendors from a local market.

According to the Commission for Disappeared Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS), there were 40 incidents involving rights violations carried out by Indonesian soldiers and police against Papuans last year. They included shootings, torture and the arbitrary arrests of at least 276 people. Some people died in some of these incidents.

One was Marius Betera, a Catholic farmer in Papua’s Boven Digul district who was found dead in May last year following a land dispute. 

The police claimed the man died of a heart attack, but allegations he died as a result of a police beating prompted Archbishop Petrus Canisius Mandagi of Merauke to call on the police chief to investigate the death and punish whoever was allegedly responsible.

These and last week’s incidents not only strengthen public distrust but also add fuel to the demand for swift change. Many groups have urged Widodo, the House of Representatives and the police chief to accelerate reform.

This month Indonesians marked seven years of Widodo’s presidency, with thousands staging rallies in Jakarta on Oct. 20.

While his administration is being hailed for economic and infrastructure progress, it stands accused of overseeing a worsening human rights situation and failing to settle past abuses, among which the police feature heavily.

As such, the police force must commit to transforming itself from within and the police chief needs to act now to regain public trust

Such violations by police are thought to be a result of a weakened monitoring system, both internally and externally. Internal police supervision does not function as expected and lacks transparency, while external monitoring from the House of Representatives and Ombudsman is poor due to resistance from within the police.

As such, the police force must commit to transforming itself from within and the police chief needs to act now to regain public trust.

Prabowo appears to have made a positive start. Following the Tangerang incident, he ordered local police chiefs to prosecute or fire any police officer found to have committed excessive violence or immoral acts.

He also instructed them to ensure that the handling of such cases is transparent and fair and to enforce the law strictly and harshly against officers who break the rules.

Many have praised this move and have been encouraged that he means what he says following the removal of a senior police officer at the center of a sex scandal in Central Sulawesi.

The police chief has also set up a hotline that enables people to easily report alleged police abuses.

It’s a great opportunity for Indonesians to support the police chief and participate in his transformation efforts to make their police force function according to human rights standards.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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