(New York) - The verdict expected on December 31, 2008, in the trial of a senior intelligence official charged with the murder of the Indonesian human rights lawyer Munir is an important test of the independence of the Indonesian judicial system, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch said today.
Retired Major General Muchdi Purwopranjono, a former deputy at the State Intelligence Agency (known as Badan Intelijen Negara, or BIN) and the former head of the army's abusive special forces unit, Kopassus, has been charged with premeditated murder in the killing of Munir. Munir was poisoned with arsenic, leading to his death on a commercial airliner en route to the Netherlands in September 2004. Two men have been convicted in connection with the killing, but the trial of Muchdi is the first related to planning and ordering the crime. However, since the fall of Soeharto in 1998, no Indonesian general has been successfully prosecuted for a human rights abuse.
Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First have followed the five-month trial closely, and representatives have observed several sessions.
"If Indonesia is to move beyond its authoritarian past, the justice system must show that generals are not above the law," said Matt Easton, director of the Human Rights Defenders Program at Human Rights First. "Investigators, prosecutors, and the courts must be ready to go where the evidence and the law lead them."
Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First said that the trial of a senior security official is an important event in Indonesia, given the long-term lack of accountability by members of the armed forces and intelligence services, dating back to the Soeharto era.
A presidential commission, a reinvigorated police investigation, and the murder trial of a pilot named Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto uncovered evidence tying the murder to BIN. Based on this evidence, which includes phone records, documents, and sworn statements by intelligence agents, Muchdi was arrested in June. His trial began in August.
Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First said that the evidence presented against Muchdi is compelling. However, aspects of the trial concern both organizations, including the systematic retraction of sworn statements to the police and pressure put on the court by groups present in the courtroom. Witnesses tried to withdraw statements they had made to the police, claimed to have forgotten basic facts, or failed to appear in court. Most were former or current intelligence officers as well as retired members of the military.
Several witnesses contradicted their statements to investigators, claiming that they did not know or remember the answers to questions they had answered in detail previously. However, in courtroom testimony, police investigators rebutted claims by some of these witnesses that they had been sick, under psychological pressure, unable to see without their glasses, or deprived of representation when they were initially questioned. The judge has discretion to consider the prior sworn statements in cases where a witness fails to appear or contradicts his statements without a valid justification.
The Indonesian government has been under strong domestic and international pressure to successfully prosecute Munir's killers. In response, dozens of Muchdi's supporters appeared at each trial session in shirts marked with the slogan "Fight Foreign Intervention." These supporters, from a group called the Red and White Brigade (Brigade Merah Putih), were often joined by another group called Betawi Brotherhood Forum (Forum Betawi Rempug, or FBR), which was responsible for past violence against human rights defenders, including Munir himself. At some sessions of the trial the groups yelled at prosecution witnesses and applauded defense witnesses. Such groups are often invited or hired to attend trials and demonstrations in an effort to influence the proceedings.
"With the right personnel and the backing of Indonesia's leadership, the police rose to the challenge and arrested a senior official thought to be untouchable," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "Now that some witnesses have suddenly changed their stories, all eyes turn to the judges to see if they can withstand the pressure of powerful forces in the security services."
Muchdi has long been implicated in serious human rights abuses, including the "disappearance" of students calling for the ouster of Soeharto in 1998, when Muchdi was the head of Kopassus. Muchdi's military career ended in 1998 after a military court found Kopassus soldiers guilty of abducting activists, 13 of whom have never been found. Munir had led an investigation into the abductions when he was chairperson of the Commission on Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras). The Defense Ministry's official website states that: "The TNI [armed forces] chief had disciplined ... Kopassus officer Maj. Gen. Muchdi PR ... with a decision to remove [him and others] from their posts following their failures to control their subordinates' activities." The prosecution has suggested Munir may have been murdered by Muchdi as revenge for his role in presenting evidence that led to Muchdi's dismissal.
"Notwithstanding the orchestrated and very likely coerced retractions of witness statements, the prosecution has presented strong evidence," said Easton. "The court should simply weigh the evidence and come to an independent verdict."
Whatever the verdict on December 31, which either side can appeal, the search for justice in the Munir case will not be over. Questions will remain about whether others in BIN's senior leadership knew of or participated in the plot. And the inconsistent testimony during the trial, much of it contradicted by phone logs and other documents, warrants an investigation into perjury or witness-tampering.
Munir, best known as a founder and director of the highly effective Kontras, was the director of the Jakarta-based human rights group Imparsial at the time of his death. His legal aid career began in Surabaya in 1989 and included stints as director of the Semarang Legal Aid office and as chief of field operations for the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) in Jakarta. He represented many human rights victims and activists in high-profile cases, and regularly spoke out for justice in the face of intimidation, including death threats. His work encompassed the full range of human rights concerns in Indonesia, from abuses by the Indonesian military and police to attacks on labor activists, from a lack of accountability for human rights crimes in Aceh, East Timor, and Papua to the rights of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese minority.
Munir was the winner of numerous honors, including being named Man of the Year in 1998 by a leading Indonesian Muslim periodical, UMMAT, and a "young leader for the Millennium" by Asiaweek in 2000. The same year, he was one of the recipients of "The Right Livelihood Award" - known as the "Alternative Nobel Prize" - for "his courage and dedication in fighting for human rights and the civilian control of the military in Indonesia."
"Munir's murder is an open wound in Indonesia that will not heal until all those responsible are held accountable," said Adams.