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

© 2007 Reuters

(New York) - The Indonesian police should follow the recommendation of a special National Human Rights Commission team and reopen their investigation into the 2004 murder of Munir bin Thalib, a leading human rights lawyer, Human Rights Watch said today.

The special team, which examined the conduct of police, prosecutors, and judges in conducting the 2008 trial of a senior security services official for Munir's killing, found on February 9, 2010, that all three institutions had performed their tasks poorly and recommended renewed efforts to establish responsibility for the murder.

"President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono once said that finding Munir's killers was the test of Indonesia's history," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The human rights team has shown that Indonesia has utterly failed that test. President Yudhoyono should order a new investigation and make good on his promise to see that justice is done."

In December 2008, following a widely criticized trial, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Muchdi Purwopranjono was acquitted on charges that he ordered the murder. In February 2009 the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) appointed a public examination team, consisting of five prominent lawyers, to "verify the evidence and the trial process" that had led to Muchdi's acquittal.

Following a one-year inquiry, the team announced that it had determined that Muchdi's trial and a subsequent appeal by prosecutors had suffered from a number of shortcomings. These included "unprofessional" handling of the case by prosecutors, the failure of the district court judge to summon at least two key witnesses for the prosecution, and the appellate court judges' lack of experience in reviewing criminal trials. The special team recommended that police undertake a new investigation into the case to allow for prosecutors to request a "case review" of the acquittal.

A lawyer on the special team, Frans Hendra Winarta, told the Indonesian media that its examination had revealed that "the prosecutors were strangely unprofessional in handling a case with such incredible public exposure." The team's report found that as a result of errors by police, prosecutors, and judges, key evidence implicating Indonesia's State Intelligence Agency (Badan Intelijen Negara or BIN) and Garuda Indonesia airlines in the murder had been obscured.

The team was especially critical of the judges at all stages of the case against Muchdi, saying that if the investigation were to be brought before the courts again, "the court and the Supreme Court should appoint more credible judges who have integrity, are impartial and different from the previous judges."

Munir, best known as a founder and director of the widely respected Commission for "Disappeared" Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), died on September 7, 2004, at the age of 38, while on a Garuda Indonesia flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam, Netherlands. An autopsy conducted by the Dutch Forensic Institute, released in November 2004, concluded that Munir had ingested a fatal dose of arsenic poison. Munir's work encompassed the full range of human rights concerns in Indonesia, including abuses by the Indonesian military and police.

In the years since Munir's murder, Indonesian courts have convicted two individuals in the crime. Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, a Garuda pilot traveling as a passenger on the same flight as Munir, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in December 2005. The second, the former president of Garuda Indonesia airlines, Indra Setiawan, was sentenced to one year in prison. However, the available evidence suggests that the two were minor figures in the crime. The judge who sentenced Pollycarpus specifically urged the police to conduct a further investigation to uncover those ultimately responsible.

In 2008, prosecutors using evidence gathered by police and an independent fact-finding team established by Yudhoyono, charged Muchdi, the former commander of Indonesia's Special Forces, known as Kopassus, and a former deputy director at the State Intelligence Agency, with murder. Prosecutors alleged that Muchdi had sought revenge against Munir, whom he blamed for his removal as Kopassus commander in 1998. At that time Munir had alleged that Muchdi was involved in the 1997 and 1998 kidnappings and disappearance of student activists opposed to the rule of then President Suharto.

Muchdi's trial was marred by irregularities and allegations of witness tampering. Some witnesses - most of whom were former or current intelligence officers or retired members of the military - refused to appear in court and were not compelled by the judge to do so. Others withdrew sworn statements made to the police and claimed to have forgotten details previously recounted or to have been sick, under psychological pressure, unable to see without their glasses, or deprived of representation when they were initially questioned. On December 31, 2008, the South Jakarta District Court acquitted Muchdi of the murder charges. On June 15, 2009, a panel of the Indonesian Supreme Court rejected the prosecutors' appeal of the verdict.

At the time, Human Rights Watch called for an independent investigation into witness tampering and for witness protection efforts to be strengthened.

"The security forces' continued power to intervene in the administration of justice was plainly visible at Muchdi's trial," Adams said. "Indonesian police, prosecutors, and courts appear to have buckled under that pressure in 2008, with the result that responsibility for Munir's death remains unresolved."