Subject: Three Years On, Case Of Murdered Activist Still Weighs On Indonesia's Future

Three Years On, Case Of Murdered Activist Still Weighs On Indonesia's Future

By ANTHONY DEUTSCH Associated Press Writer

JAKARTA, JAn 13 (AP) - More than three years after Indonesia's leading human rights campaigner died of arsenic poisoning during a commercial airline flight, his case has become a critical test of the country's willingness to come to grips with the legacy of the 32-year Suharto dictatorship.

The death of Munir Thalib on Sept. 7, 2004, on a flight to Amsterdam with Garuda, the Indonesian national airline, is a bizarre cloak-and-dagger story for which an off-duty Garuda pilot was convicted in December 2005, only to be acquitted by the Supreme Court 10 months later.

Last year, police presented new evidence, and the same court is now due to rule once again on the fate of the pilot, Polycarpus Priyanto, while the nation continues to wonder whether, and how deeply, the death implicates senior officials who had an interest in silencing Thalib.

The affair also keeps attention focused on Suharto's place in today's Indonesia. Even though the 86-year-old ex-dictator has been living a secluded life, his presence still hovers over Indonesian life. When his health gravely worsened this month, the political elite, from the president down, flocked to his bedside in the hospital where he is in critical condition with heart, lung and kidney problems, and internal bleeding.

Critics of the system say that if Priyanto is cleared again, a judiciary that has failed to prosecute those blamed for hundreds of thousands of Suharto-era killings and disappearances will have lost out again to powerful forces that still operate with impunity a decade after Indonesia embraced democracy.

It would "prove that things in Indonesia have not changed as much as they would like the world to think," said Matthew Easton, a senior associate at Human Rights First, a U.S.-based lawyers' group.

The case is being closely watched abroad, by the United Nations and European Union as well as the U.S. Congress, which last month decided to withhold US$2.7 million (euro1.84 million) in military aid unless Jakarta sets a deadline for completing the criminal investigation.

The Indonesian media follow every twist of Thalib's story. "If someone like him is killed and the killer is not accountable, or has impunity, this is really the murder of our freedom," said Bambang Harymurti, editor-in-chief of the respected Tempo newspaper.

Speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the case, a lead prosecutor in the case sees the pending Supreme Court ruling as a last chance to achieve justice for a man whose efforts to expose atrocities made him an icon in the struggle against the dictatorship.

Priyanto, the off-duty Garuda pilot, boarded Flight GA974 posing as an undercover security officer. A key witness testified during Priyanto's trial about seeing Priyanto and Thalib chatting at a coffee shop at Singapore's airport, but later retracted his statement.

Priyanto denies having met Munir and says he went straight to a hotel after the plane landed in Singapore.

A few hours later, as the plane continued to Amsterdam, Thalib died in mid-flight of a strong dose of poison despite a doctor's efforts to save him. He was 38.

Prosecutors say privately they believe the crime was masterminded by officials at BIN, the State Intelligence Agency, who allegedly ordered senior airline executives to falsify the documents that put Priyanto on the jetliner for the 7,000-mile (11,265-kilometer) flight.

An official at the Attorney General's office spoke to the AP of a well-planned conspiracy and high-level cover-up.

The strongest link to the BIN is a list printed by the telephone company of more than 40 conversations, by cell phone and a land line, between BIN's then deputy chief and Priyanto.

In a separate wiretapped phone call made public by prosecutors in August 2007, Priyanto is heard telling Indra Setiawan, then Garuda's chief executive, that all evidence linking them to the BIN has been destroyed.

"Almost 90 percent of state officials are on our side," Priyanto is heard saying.

This was after Priyanto's conviction and 14-year prison sentence had been quashed, but the revelation of fresh prosecution evidence helped force the case to be reopened by the Supreme Court.

Setiawan and the airline's former deputy president, Rohainil Aini, were arrested in April and are on trial, accused of providing paperwork that got Priyanto onto the flight. They have said in court they were acting on BIN's orders and deny involvement in a murder plot.

Though the judges have begun deliberations, it could be months before a decision is announced by the Supreme Court, which recently surprised Indonesians with a ruling in Suharto's favor against Time magazine.

The former dictator won a US$106 million (euro72.2 million) defamation suit after he and his family were accused of embezzling billions of dollars in state funds. Time has appealed.

The uproar over Thalib's death forced President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to set up an independent fact-finding team that named former and sitting state intelligence officials as suspects, but one of its members, former human rights commissioner Asmara Nababan, says the president is in a bind.

"Those who are implicated in this case ... are still powerful," he said. "This president doesn't want to make them upset. They could create problems for this administration."


AP writers Niniek Karmini and Irwan Firdaus in Jakarta contributed to this article.

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