(Jakarta) – The Indonesian government should delay the exhumation of mass graves linked to the massacres of 1965-1966 until forensic experts are available to assist, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also arrange security at known or suspected mass grave sites to prevent unauthorized exhumations.

Security minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan in central Jakarta, Indonesia on January 14, 2016.

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In a May 16, 2016 letter, Human Rights Watch urged the government to deploy forensic experts with the skills and experience to ensure that exhumation is done as part of a careful and systematic process that preserves crucial evidence and allows for identification of bodies. Identification of possible victims and the cause of death are key components of a process toward eventual redress for those crimes.

“Exhumation of mass graves of victims of 1965-66 is an important step toward accountability that deserves the support of the Indonesian public and foreign donors,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “But the government should recognize that mass graves are crime scenes that require specialized forensic expertise to ensure preservation of evidence and accurate identification of bodies.”

On April 25, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo instructed his security minister, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, to start documenting the location of mass graves of the estimated more than 500,000 victims of the 1965-1966 “anti-communist” massacres. The Indonesian government announced on May 9 that it would form a team to investigate a list of 122 alleged mass grave sites of 1965-1966 massacre victims compiled by victims’ advocacy groups. Pandjaitan has since indicated that he will supervise exhumation of an initial sample of those alleged mass grave sites by the end of May. However, the government has not clarified the composition of the exhumation team or whether it will include forensic experts with experience in mass grave exhumations.

Exhumations without forensic experts can destroy critical evidence and greatly complicate the identification of bodies, Human Rights Watch said. In places such as Kosovo and Iraq, spontaneous and disorganized exhumations greatly complicated victim identifications and destroyed evidence.

Foreign governments and the United Nations should support the Indonesian government’s mass grave investigations, Human Rights Watch said. International donors should help finance the preservation and analysis of evidence that could be vital to future domestic accountability processes to address serious crimes. The provision of foreign forensic experts should focus on both the collection of criminal evidence and the humanitarian identification of remains, so that the bodies can be returned to the families of the dead.

“The Indonesian government’s determination to exhume possible mass grave sites is an act of political courage toward accountability that defies a half-century of official lies and denial,” Kine said. “But hasty exhumations done without requisite expert skills and experience may well destroy crucial evidence and seriously obstruct efforts to bring justice for the victims of 1965-66.”