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Justice must finally be given to Indonesian rights champion

Resolving murder of rights activist Munir Said Thalib is a test of Indonesia's democracy and its will to fight impunity

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Published: September 03, 2021 10:28 AM GMT

Updated: September 03, 2021 10:31 AM GMT

Justice must finally be given to Indonesian rights champion

Suciwati (center) and supporters hold up images of her husband, Munir Said Thalib, near the presidential palace in Jakarta in 2018. Rights activist Munir was murdered in 2004 while on a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam. (Photo: Konradus Epa/UCA News)

It is barely a few days before Sept. 7, the 17th anniversary of the assassination of Munir Said Thalib, founder of KontraS, Indonesia’s biggest human rights organization.

It seems like only yesterday when a text message from Indonesia informed me that Munir had died. The message left me shocked and perplexed about the cause of death of the 38-year-old human rights lawyer with whom I had talked by phone the day before he was assassinated on board a Garuda flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam via Singapore on Sept. 7, 2004. 

A few hours after the plane took off from Singapore, Munir asked to move to business class and soon after complained of a stomach ache and was sick in the toilet. He then sought out a doctor he had met at Changi Airport who gave him first aid, milk, salt, water and a diatab, a drug to treat upset stomachs and diarrhea. 

Hours later, Munir was again in pain and vomited. He was given a sedative but died three hours before the plane landed in Amsterdam.

A month after his death, during a lobbying tour to eight European countries, I, along with a team of lobbyists for the UN’s adoption of the anti-disappearance treaty, was told that Indonesian media had announced that Munir was poisoned with a dose of arsenic strong enough to kill two elephants.  

The autopsy, conducted by the Netherlands Forensic Institute, confirmed the cause of death.  

The staunchest human rights figure Indonesia has ever produced, Munir defended activists who were kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned and killed during the Suharto dictatorship

From Finland, the seventh country that we visited, we traveled to the Netherlands where we met with Dutch Foreign Ministry officials. 

In that meeting, we raised the topic of Munir’s assassination and questioned why the autopsy results were not immediately given to the family. The answer was vague.

The staunchest human rights figure Indonesia has ever produced, Munir defended activists who were kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned and killed during the Suharto dictatorship. In his earlier years as a lawyer, he defended Marsinah, a female labor activist who was later killed by the military in May 1993. Munir’s human rights advocacy upset those in power and earned their ire.

I first met Munir in December 2000 at an international human rights lawyers’ conference in Indonesia. He had to leave the conference early to receive the Right Livelihood Award in Sweden. That meeting was followed by other meetings in Thailand and Switzerland. 

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Munir’s humble assertiveness, brilliance and clear human rights perspective were admirable.

He was elected chairman of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances during its Second Congress held in Bangkok in August 2003 where I was the secretary-general. 

We were supposed to participate in a session of the drafting and negotiation process of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. He was to travel to the Netherlands first for a human rights course. 

The day prior to his trip, we spoke over the phone. He gave me his address in the Netherlands and we agreed that we both would travel to the September 2004 session of the then Inter-Sessional Working Group to Elaborate a Draft Legally Binding Normative Instrument for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Sadly, Munir never made it to the session.

Two weeks after his assassination, the drafting body of the anti-disappearance treaty was in session. While at the UN, news of the precarious situation of Suciwati, Munir’s wife, came to us. She had received a box with a dead chicken inside and a letter threatening she would end up like the chicken if she persisted in trying to find the truth behind her husband’s killing. 

In the draft treaty, one paragraph stated: “Each State Party shall guarantee the right to form and participate freely in organizations and associations concerned with attempting to establish the circumstances of enforced disappearances and the fate of disappeared persons, and to assist victims of enforced disappearance.” 

While debating the draft, many countries objected to the inclusion of this right, so I took to the floor and shared the story of Suciwati and the dead chicken. 

Such threats and intimidation experienced by families and defenders were compelling reasons for the inclusion of the said paragraph. 

After my intervention, no state questioned the paragraph anymore and is now an integral part of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and a fitting tribute to Munir.

Priyanto’s early release and Purwoprananjono’s acquittal speak volumes about impunity in Indonesia

It has been 17 long years since Munir’s assassination. Pollycarpus Priyanto, a pilot for Garuda Indonesia and an alleged BIN (Military Intelligence Agency) agent, was found to have administered the poison that caused Munir’s death. 

He was reportedly instructed to be assigned to Munir’s flight when he was supposed to be flying to Beijing. 

The reassignment of Priyanto reportedly followed a now missing letter from the BIN telling Garuda’s then chief executive officer, Indra Setiawan, to make the transfer.

Investigations further revealed 41 calls between Priyanto and BIN’s deputy chief General Muchdi Purwopranjono. 

Found guilty and sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment, Priyanto was jailed but released in 2006 when the Supreme Court cited insufficient evidence. Purwoprananjono, who was convicted as the assassination mastermind, was also later acquitted. 

Priyanto’s early release and Purwoprananjono’s acquittal speak volumes about impunity in Indonesia. 

Asked for her comments on the 17th anniversary of Munir’s assassination, Suciwati said there had been no movement in the conclusion of Munir's case. 

“The present administration is actively working against a resolution,” she said.

She noted there has been an increase in attacks on human rights defenders in Indonesia. 

“I urge the international community to pay attention to the high level of violence against human rights defenders. The Indonesian government must make perpetrators accountable for assaults on human rights defenders.”

There was collective grief. Such grief must be turned into courage for truth and justice

Suciwati lamented that her government has chosen to maintain impunity for the perpetrators of Munir’s killing and many other killings in Indonesia. 

With civil society organizations, she will join a collective call to Komnas Ham, the national human rights body in Indonesia, to declare Munir’s assassination a gross human rights violation.

On Sept. 7, there will be many information dissemination activities including the reading of the results of fact-finding missions. There will also be discussions with international experts on reopening the Munir case. 

I remember accompanying Suciwati and many Indonesian human rights defenders on a flight from Jakarta to Munir’s hometown in Malang. This was when Munir’s remains were laid in his final resting place. 

There was collective grief. Such grief must be turned into courage for truth and justice. 

While his body has long been buried, the truth about his murder and justice for him and his family should never ever be buried. Munir’s principles and ideals should live forever. 

The most awaited resolution of the Munir case will make Indonesia a paragon in the fight against impunity.

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso is president of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances. 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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