Fire crackers explode near supporters of presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto during clashes with the police in Jakarta, Indonesia on Wednesday, May 22, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

(Jakarta) – The Indonesian government should ensure a prompt, effective, and independent investigation into the Jakarta violence on May 21-23, 2019, in which more than 700 protesters were wounded and 8 killed, Human Rights Watch said.

“Indonesian authorities should investigate the use of force by police during these protests and ensure that any police officer who used excessive force is held accountable,” said Elaine Pearson.

Protests began on May 21 after the Election Commission announced that President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) had won the presidential election with 55.5 percent of the vote against the opposition leader, Prabowo S. Djojohadikusumo, with 44.5 percent. Prabowo did not acknowledge defeat, calling the election a fraud and indicating to his supporters that they should protest the result.

The United States Embassy in Indonesia called the April 17 voting a “successful, free, and fair election.”

The protest began outside Indonesia’s Election Supervision Agency’s office on Jakarta’s main boulevard, with opposition supporters protesting the agency’s ruling that the election was free and fair. Violence broke out later that night when protesters broke down barbed wire around the office.

Another group gathered in Petamburan area, near the headquarters of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a militant Islamist group. These protesters threw rocks and lit fires outside a police dormitory at 11 p.m. Video footage showed police asking protesters to stop, but they refused and called on President Jokowi to step down.

Protesters in the Tanah Abang area, about two kilometers from the election agency’s office, began throwing firecrackers and Molotov cocktails. At around 2 a.m. on May 22, anti-riot police began to use water cannons, teargas, and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters in all three locations. A police spokesman said that seven men were fatally shot with rubber bullets but that one was killed by live ammunition. The police said all their officers were equipped with rubber bullets.

Police made hundreds of arrests, mostly of rock-throwing rioters, but also including:

  • A former marine officer who carried a sniper rifle with a silencer, and later his five accomplices with two pistols, near the protest site. One of them is Asmaizulfi, the wife of a retired Army general and a Prabowo supporter, who had allegedly provided some money for the group. National Police Chief Tito Karnavian said he suspected the group was to use the weapons during the riots “… in an effort to provoke, to create martyrs, blame the authorities, and invoke public anger”;
  • Two men who drove an ambulance on May 21 bearing the logo of Prabowo’s Gerindra Party with stones and cash in envelopes inside, containing 250,000-500,000 rupiah (US$17-US$34) that the Jakarta Police spokesman, Argo Yuwono, alleged was to be distributed to the protesters;
  • Two retired generals: Maj. Gen. Soenarko, a former commander of Indonesia’s Special Forces, known as Kopassus, charged with smuggling a rifle from Aceh to Jakarta with the help of an Army private; and Maj. Gen. Kivlan Zein, a former chief of staff at the Army’s reserve command, charged with helping Asmaizulfi’s group. One of Asmaizulfi’s men is Zein’s driver who is accused of carrying a pistol during the riots and who claimed that Zein had given him the gun;
  • Thirty-one terrorism suspects, most of them members of the banned Jemaat Ansharut Tauhid and two Islamic State militants, with 11 home-made bombs. Police said they feared that the bombs would be set off during rallies at the election agency offices.
  • Said Djamalul Abidin, a politician from the National Mandate Party, who produced a video claiming that the anti-riot police were “police from China.” Police suspected that Abidin had tried to incite anti-Chinese violence in Jakarta;
  • Mustofa Nahrawardaya, a politician from the National Mandate Party and a Prabowo campaign team member, for falsely tweeting that a beaten protester had died. He accused that the police had fatally beaten that protester named “Harun.” The police beat a protester named “Andre Bibir,” though not fatally. A police spokesman said that the National Police internal affairs division is investigating the incident;
  • Eggi Sudjana, a politician from the National Mandate Party and a Prabowo campaign team member. Police charged him with treason and spreading fake news, encouraging the public protest against the General Elections Commission and agency;
  • Lieus Sungkharisma, a spokesman for the Prabowo campaign, arrested on May 20 for hate speech;
  • Amien Rais of the National Mandate Party, also a former speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly, who was questioned as a witness in the Sudjana case. Rais was the first person to use the term “people power” in Indonesia, in advance of the April 17 election, which he labeled “a fraud election.”

A police spokesman said seven men were fatally shot with rubber bullets but one was killed by live ammunition. The police said all their officers were equipped with rubber bullets.

“People should be prosecuted for acts of violence, including those arms-related charges, but prosecuting people who only made comments online is an unacceptable stifling of free debate that will deepen divisions,” said Pearson. “Inciting ethnic and religious sentiment in Indonesia can be deadly but there needs to be a clear link between incitement and violence.”

Indonesian authorities should investigate whether police tactics were necessary and proportionate and should hold officers to account for excessive use of force, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should immediately ensure that law enforcement officials exercise the greatest possible restraint during any upcoming demonstrations and resort to force only when strictly necessary.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency’s guidance, and the Indonesian police’s procedures in crowd control and the use of force, all stipulate that the use of force, including the use of nonlethal weapons for the purposes of crowd control, is legitimate only when necessary and proportionate.

Indonesia has witnessed ethnic and religious violence over the last two decades, since the fall of President Suharto, Prabowo’s father-in-law, in May 1998. This included state-backed violence in Aceh, East Timor, and Papua but also communal violence against ethnic Madurese, and violence between Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas and Northern Moluccas islands in which thousands were killed.

An independent investigation by Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission and the attorney general is needed to hold abusive parties to account and to help the Indonesian public learn the truth about the organizations that orchestrated the Jakarta riots.