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Assassination of Human Rights Activist Haunts Indonesia’s Democratic Progress

FILE - An Indonesian protester shouts slogans as she holds a poster of Munir Said Thalib during a demonstration outside the National Intelligence Agency (BIN) office in Jakarta.
FILE - An Indonesian protester shouts slogans as she holds a poster of Munir Said Thalib during a demonstration outside the National Intelligence Agency (BIN) office in Jakarta.

A decade after the assassination of Indonesian human rights activist Munir Said Thalib, the case remains unsolved but not forgotten. On the eve of the inauguration of the country’s reform-minded president-elect Joko Widodo, pressure is growing to re-open the investigation.

At a time when civil rights and freedom of speech were suppressed, Munir Said Thalib fought hard to expose transgressions of the state.

In the early days of the country’s rocky democratic transition, Munir helped to uncover evidence of the military’s involvement in human rights abuses in East Timor and Aceh.

He also accused two high level figures from the state intelligence agency of involvement in two fatal military crackdowns, including the abduction and disappearance of student activists during the riots that led to the downfall of former president Suharto.

But speaking truth to power had consequences for Munir. While on a plane to Amsterdam on September 7, 2004, Munir was given a fatal dose of arsenic and died before landing.

It is unclear if he was slipped the poison on board the Garuda Indonesia flight or in transit in neighboring Singapore, but many believe those behind his death have never faced justice.

Ardi Mantro Aridputra, a researcher from the Indonesian Human Rights Monitor, IMPARSIAL, an NGO headed by Munir before his death, said the case is a test for Indonesia.

The president-elect, he said, must take a firm position to create positive change in the future. He argued that if Widodo continues to allow impunity for past rights offenders, Indonesia will never solve its problems in the future.

Three individuals from Garuda Indonesia airlines were convicted in connection with the murder, but it is believed they did not act alone.

Activists allege that those accused were acting on orders issued by the National Intelligence Agency, citing evidence of phone calls and visits between Pollycarpus Priyanto, one of the suspects jailed, and the deputy head of intelligence at the time.

But during the legal proceeding, activists say evidence was suppressed and key witnesses retracted their statements.

A 2007 U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks also cites witnesses alleging the former chief of the state intelligence agency, Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, “chaired to meetings at which Munir’s assassination was planned.”

Earlier this week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that “full accountability for all those allegedly involved remains elusive.”

Despite the renewed pressure, Aleksius Jemadu, dean of the school of political sciences at Pelita Harapan University, thinks Widodo is unlikely to reopen the case.

“The culture of impunity is so strong, it's massive, and I don't think that he (Jokowi) has the ability, the experience in order to face such a huge challenge because for me it is [as though] there is a changing tacit agreement among the elites not to investigate all these past human rights violations, as seriously as we might expect or the United States might expect,” said Jemadu.

During his first term in office, current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono set up an independent team to investigate the case. Although stipulated in a presidential decree, the results of that investigation have never been made public.

Activists are now pushing for Widodo, known here as Jokowi, to make those results transparent after he is inaugurated in late October.

But for seemingly political reasons Jokowi has chosen to court two figures with questionable human rights background in his inner circle, one being Hendropriyono, the man mentioned in the Wikileaks cable.

And while Jokowi wooed Indonesian voters with his unpretentious style and a pledged commitment to human rights, he has never explicitly said he would address the Munir case.

Haris Azhar, coordinator of the NGO, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, said Indonesia needs a brave leader.

“Everything is already there, the evidence, the pressure, the attention, it's already there. What we need to have is just a courageous government to solve the case, that's all,” said Azhar.

Yet upon taking office Jokowi is expected to prioritize two key issues - addressing the politically sensitive issue of fuel subsides, and negotiating with a parliament in which his coalition holds the minority.