Subject: Indonesia still tarnished by activist murder

Indonesia still tarnished by activist murder

12 Sep 2007 01:54:35 GMT

Source: Reuters

By Ed Davies and Ahmad Pathoni

JAKARTA, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Indonesian human rights activist Munir Thalib, who died in agony of arsenic poisoning on a Garuda flight in 2004, made plenty of enemies in his career -- including from the ranks of the country's powerful security forces.

Three years on, the failure to bring anyone to justice for the murder has raised questions over President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's commitment to human rights and legal reform, as well as the accountability of a number of state agencies.

Munir, only 38 when he died, was an outspoken critic of Indonesia's military and its heavy-handed methods in quashing dissent in separatist hotspots such as Aceh, Papua and East Timor.

As well as tackling abuses by the military, the human rights lawyer defended labour activists and dissidents, particularly during the harsh rule of former President Suharto.

His work earned him a number of awards, including a Right Livelihood Award, often called an "Alternative Nobel Prize" -- as well as numerous death threats.

But even though President Yudhoyono vowed to get to the bottom of the murder case when he was elected in 2004 -- and has come under pressure from Washington and top U.N. human rights officials not to let the case slide -- progress has been slow.

"Munir's murder case is one chance for the country to break the chain of impunity," said Asmara Nababan, an activist and former member of the national commission on human rights.

"We have seen signs of progress in the case, but for police and other law enforcement agencies to work effectively, a commitment from the top is needed," he told Reuters.

Pollycarpus Priyanto, an off-duty pilot for national carrier Garuda, was jailed for 14 years in 2005 after being found guilty of the murder, but the conviction was overturned last year by the Supreme Court, citing a lack of evidence and witnesses.

Munir's widow, Suciawati, led a public outcry after the release of Priyanto, who has been accused of links to the state spy agency, which has its roots in much feared military and civilian intelligence agencies used by Suharto to crush dissent.

Prosecutors filed a case review in July, submitting what they say is fresh evidence Priyanto poisoned the activist at an outlet of the Coffee Bean chain while he was in transit at Singapore's Changi airport -- and pointing to a conspiracy by linking the spy agency and Garuda officials to the case.

COURTROOM DRAMA

After the overthrow in 1998 of Suharto, the former general who ruled for 32 years, Indonesia has transformed into a young democracy with open political debate and wide-ranging freedoms.

But critics say many of those guilty of rights abuses remain unpunished and endemic corruption persists, despite pledges by Yudhoyono, also a former general, to tackle these issues.

The attempt to overturn the Supreme Court decision to acquit Priyanto has, at times, made gripping drama in court.

In August, Indra Setiawan, the former president of state carrier Garuda, told the court that before Munir's death, he had received a letter from the state intelligence agency asking him to allow Priyanto to be a flight security officer.

Prosecutors also played a taped phone conversation in which Priyanto told Setiawan the attorney general and the supreme court's chief justice were "our men".

Priyanto, who once appeared in court wearing a hat emblazoned with an Indonesian flag, admitted the voice on the tape was his, but said he only intended "to comfort Setiawan". He has denied the charges against him.

New U.S. forensic examination based on the type of arsenic used to kill Munir indicates he was poisoned while in transit.

In the appeal, prosecutors presented witnesses who said they had seen Priyanto with Munir at a coffee shop in Changi airport.

One of these witnesses, veteran Indonesian pop singer Raymon Latuihamallo, later recanted a statement to police in which he said he had seen Munir and Priyanto together, saying he had been pressured by authorities to make it.

Rights groups say Indonesia still has a long way to go in making some state agencies fully accountable.

The Commission for Disappeared Persons and Victims of Violence, a group founded by Munir, said in a report at the end of last year that despite some improvements, the nation's security forces were still operating above the law.

Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, a friend of Munir, wrote in the Jakarta Post soon after the murder that the activist was a key player in helping bring democracy to Indonesia.

"He stood up to people in power, he made them angry, he got threat after threat after threat, and he never gave up."


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