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INDONESIA: The Case of Munir Said Thalib: A Litmus Test for Human Rights in Indonesia: An Interview with Suciwati Munir

Norman Voss

(Suciwati Munir's husband Munir Said Thalib, a 38-year-old human rights lawyer and co-founder of Kontras [Commission for Disappearances and Victims of Violence], was fatally poisoned with arsenic on a Garuda Airlines flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam in September 2004. Since his death, Suciwati has been seeking justice for his murder.

The translator for this interview, Indri Ferninda, who becomes involved in the discussion at one point during the interview, is a staff member of Kontras and was an intern at the Asian Human Rights Commission [AHRC] at the time of the interview.

The author is an AHRC staff member.)

Suciwati Munir (Photo: AHRC)

AHRC: Please describe the work of your husband for human rights in Indonesia. How was he viewed by people in the country?

SUCIWATI: To his friends and the victims he assisted, he was a human rights fighter. He fought against injustice and defended its victims. For the victims, he was also a sympathetic friend who provided support to them. In cases of disappearances, he stood with the families and expressed his concern for them and took their complaints. I must say that Munir was the first person to have the courage to speak up against the abductions and disappearances. He took this stand in 1998. This issue was so important to him. He thought, and was very much determined, that no more disappearances should be tolerated. Munir also became one of the people who offered some inspiration for the people to keep thinking and working in support of these issues. Munir's life provided the people with an example of how to face their fear and the violent events they may experience; for when a person is faced with some fearful event in their life, it completely eliminates their common sense and reasoning. For these reasons, he was always seen as an "insurgent" by the authorities and in the forefront of matters concerned with defending the rights of the people. He also always supported the spirit of the victims to continue to ensure the accountability of the State. Thus, Munir was a source of inspiration to all people to continue working towards the accomplishment of these goals and ideas.

AHRC: Could you say something more about the work of your husband for human rights in Indonesia? Perhaps it is best to begin with his early work for people's rights.

SUCIWATI: Munir began working in the area of human rights in 1988 in Surabaya when he became a volunteer in the Surabaya Legal Aid Foundation as part of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, known in Indonesia by their acronyms LBH Surabaya [Lembaga Bantuan Hukum] and YLBHI [Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia]. He eventually served in various leadership capacities with these organisations in Surabaya, Semarang and Jakarta until 1997.

During his work with these organisations in Surabaya, he became very concerned about labour issues. At that time, workers experienced some oppressive measures at the hands of the military when they were asking for justice, like the right to hold demonstrations. The workers during this time were under severe pressure from the military not to even publicly highlight their issues. Consequently, Munir became involved in a campaign to encourage the workers to strengthen their non-violent struggles for justice.

This was the thrust of his work until he established Kontras, or the Commission for Disappearances and Victims of Violence, in 1998 in Jakarta. After this, all of the workers began to build up their struggles of winning justice, and subsequently, he was recognised internationally as well for persistently struggling for justice.

In addition, through Kontras, he conducted various programmes and campaigns that finally led to the return of pro-democratic movements that sought to protect the people who suffered from disappearances in the country. Moreover, after Kontras highlighted various human rights violations committed by the army in East Timor, Papua and Aceh—torture, disappearances and violence against women, for instance—the movement that was initiated by Munir proved to be an immense source of strength for the people. After 1998, some of the issues which helped expand this movement were the shooting of a student and the disappearances and killings in Marsinah, and, of course, there was social conflict in the Maluku Islands also. I must say again that Munir was one of the few people who came forward to assist the victims and help them obtain justice. He also sought the adoption of reconciliation measures to stop the various conflicts which existed in society.

AHRC: Kontras, the organization that Munir founded, is most often associated with his name. What was the impetus for the formation of Kontras? What did it seek to do?

SUCIWATI: Kontras was born in 1998 just a few months before the reformation era when some of the student activists were abducted and killed by the military. At that time, some of the NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and student groups established Kontras to speak out together against the disappearances caused by the military. It was in this context that Kontras was created. After the formation of the organisation, it started making inquiries and seeking justice from the law enforcement authorities for the students and others who had disappeared in 1998. For most of them, their bodies were never recovered; the military and other state agencies never returned them.

After 1998, the National Commission on Human Rights [Komisi Nasional Hak Asasi Manusia, or Komnas HAM] was formed to inquire into the killings and disappearances in the Maluku Islands and other social conflicts happening in the country. During this time, we thought that we should firmly move in the direction of seeking justice for human rights victims because during the time of Suharto, for instance, there were so many human rights violations in Indonesia, such as in 1965 and 1966 when there was a massive increase in the number of human rights abuses.

You may recall that it was in 1965 that the military or the police killed most of the members of many communities in the country. These killings took place in some areas during massive demonstrations. We wanted to find out what the government had actually done and what was the current situation of these human rights violations. In this way, we wanted the organisation to be a force in the country for finding out the facts, for finding out the truth, about these issues and to help human rights victims by pushing the government to render justice to all of them, even though some of the violations had occurred as long ago as 1965.

Kontras thus came forward to demand that the government establish strong institutions to safeguard human rights in the country. Some of the institutions which we wanted set up were a national human rights commission and human rights courts, which have now been created. We also have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in our country as well. Through these efforts and the efforts of others, we were able to get better institutions established in the country to protect people's rights. If there are any victims still living since the violence in 1965, they now have the opportunity to come forward and give evidence before these institutional bodies.

AHRC: Indri, as a staff member of Kontras, how did Munir, in your view, try to develop the organisation?

INDRI: Kontras basically began with the fall of Suharto, as Suciwati just explained, and cared very much about the human rights situation in Indonesia. During that period, there were some young people who had graduated from university as well as some current university students. I was also one of these people. We had a long distance relationship with Munir, who was a leader who could inspire young people to learn something new and to do something to assist the victims. We were thus able to learn a lot from the victims' experiences. We were also able to learn about the effects of silence, how to give assistance to the victims, how to encourage the victims to face their hardships with courage. In addition, he gave us the opportunity of becoming the chief spokesperson at public gatherings. Earlier, the public had the habit of asking only for Munir at public meetings, but now we did his part too. Although it was quite difficult for us to do this work the way Munir did, we assumed a bigger role as we should be able to show the public that there are other people who are also capable to discuss issues in the same manner as Munir.

In 2001, a few years after Kontras had been formed and Munir was leading the organisation, he thought that Kontras must be built on the quality of its people; and if not, it was useless to continue. Therefore, after a period of serving as the coordinator of Kontras for just a few years, he resigned and requested that his position be filled by someone from the younger generation. His decision was entirely different from other institutions as the coordinators usually hold that position for a very long time, such as three or four or more years. Why Munir acted in this manner was that he wanted to infuse the organisation with young blood in order to move Kontras forward as an institution of people. In this way, Munir strengthened the position of Kontras as an institution; and after a lengthy period of time, Kontras was viewed as a good example of a human rights institution.

Munir Said Thalib (Photo: EPA)

AHRC: Before we move to another topic, Suciwati, is there anything else you would like to say about Munir as a person and about his work?

SUCIWATI: Munir was one of the human rights defenders who always made his views public, such as through the media, regarding the human rights violations committed by the military or other agencies of the government. Very often, however, he was labelled as being an anti-government element as he always spoke and acted publicly against the government, military and police on any human rights issue. Munir though loved his country and the country's people. That is why he always demanded better forms of justice for the people and a better life and better human rights conditions in Indonesia.

Another quality of Munir was that he had a comprehensive understanding about the various fields of work in which he immersed himself. He was not confined to only one particular field of human rights. His understanding also covered a wide range of economic, social and political theories. He had a very special understanding about theories on social movements too. This is why in carrying out his activities he never lost sight of the political and economic conditions and other aspects of the context in which he was working. This was the more intellectual side of Munir as he sought to respond to the needs of people.

Munir was also able to collaborate and build good relationships with other groups in the country on these issues. These relationships even included relationships with some police and army officials; for although they were critical of his activities, he nevertheless became one of the key people conducting lectures for them. These seemingly incongruent and unexpected relationships occurred because some of the key officials in the army and police were well aware that Munir had a close connection with human rights victims in Indonesia. Consequently, some of them asked him to act as an adviser to them. He was thus able to give advice to them about how to strengthen law enforcement and improve human rights.

In this way, Munir both counselled human rights victims and their families about how to attain justice for the human rights violations they had suffered and also became involved in making laws. When the government wanted to enact news laws, for instance, Munir was one of the key figures advising them on the content of the laws they were proposing.

AHRC: We know much more now about Munir's life and his dedication and work for human rights through your description of him, but what happened to Munir though, how did Munir die, and what is the progress in obtaining justice for his death?

SUCIWATI: Munir was killed on Sept. 7, 2004. We never expected him to be killed in the manner he was. We were quite aware, of course, of death threats and intimidating calls made against him and the family and threats against his organisation before his death. There also had been a bomb attack on our house in Malang in East Java, and there were attacks and intimidation directed at Kontras almost every year. We were very shocked though that he was killed during the reformation era as we thought that this would not happen now. We felt confident in this regard as we knew other human rights activists who also shared this view. We were thus very shocked and saddened when we heard the news of Munir's death. After his death, but before we found out that Munir had been killed with poison, we learned that all leading institutions of the government—the Dept. of Foreign Affairs, the National Commission on Human Rights, the National Police Commission and the president of the country—had inquired about how Munir died. They too appeared to be very surprised about the manner in which he was killed.

After we received proof that Munir had been killed with poison, we called upon all sections of the community, the other organisations, to demand that the government fully investigate the actual causes behind the poisoning and killing of Munir. To expedite the inquiry into Munir's sudden death, we got people to write open letters to the president to demand an immediate inquiry into his death. We also exerted a lot of effort to get a fact-finding mission established to look into Munir's death. Since we knew that there had been a well-organised plan to kill Munir in this manner and since we suspected that certain law enforcement officers may have had a hand in his killing, we worked hard to get a fact-finding team to hold an immediate inquiry into his death. All of this was done to seek justice for Munir's death, for we were well aware of the performance of the military and police pertaining to human rights violations committed by them. We were also well aware that a fact-finding team could never escape a murder like this case so we continued our agitations for justice.

The fact-finding team subsequently appointed to inquire into Munir's death was comprised of members from the national police, Dept. of Foreign Affairs and other key experts and representatives from civil society, like leading NGOs. This fact-finding team finally started its work in December 2004.

At about the same time, the president made an announcement stating that he would give whatever assistance was needed to find the truth behind Munir's murder. He said that this case was one of the leading incidents involving human rights activists in Indonesia. Consequently, we had assurances from the president to resolve Munir's case, which the president worked on actively until June 2005.

However, the main investigation had problems as it was largely confined only to the fact-finding team. They investigated some of the fake cases and directed the national police to follow up their investigation into these cases, but the national police seemed unwilling to follow up the investigations that, in our view, were vital to solving the case. They appeared to have a problem with the National Intelligence Agency, for instance. I make this assertion because one of the suspects, Polycarpus Budihari Priyanto, had connections with the National Intelligence Agency. We also noted that when the National Intelligence Agency was involved there were difficulties in obtaining their cooperation and information about the case.

We thus saw, and firmly have grounds to believe, that the fact-finding team only had limited powers to investigate disappearances and other human rights violations. While the fact-finding team made recommendations to follow up various issues in the case, they failed to get the necessary information from the relevant state agencies, such as the National Intelligence Agency. That is why, when the fact-finding team made recommendations to the president, we requested that he publish the report officially.

Moreover, after June 2005, when we saw there were no further investigations being conducted by the national police, we demanded that the president and Parliament enact the necessary laws to audit the performance of police investigations and make them public. After this step, we also demanded that the president appoint a new fact-finding team that has more powers, including the power to force the National Intelligence Agency to cooperate and provide information. They would then proceed in the investigation of this case and all other human rights issues. Thus, it is now the duty of all organisations and people to push for these necessary measures to be taken to establish this new fact-finding team to seek justice in our country.

 

AHRC: On Dec. 20, the person you just mentioned as one of the suspects, Polycarpus, an off-duty Garuda Airlines pilot on Munir's flight in September 2004, was sentenced to 14 years in prison by a court in Jakarta for Munir's death. What are your views about Polycarpus's role in your husband's death?

SUCIWATI: I believe that Polycarpus is being made the scapegoat in this case by the courts. At this juncture, we think that the main aim of the courts should be to dig deeply into the facts and find out and expose the truth: who was responsible for killing Munir? We feel that Polycarpus had a hand in poisoning Munir and killing him, but the law enforcement authorities should find out who was the person who instructed him to fatally poison Munir. In other words, they must try to find out who masterminded this killing. It is true though that it will be very hard to find any witnesses to give evidence about how the poison was given to Munir on the Garuda Airlines flight.

As I said earlier, we think that the law enforcement authorities have made Polycarpus a scapegoat for Munir's death. Polycarpus could have been told that he will be punished for this murder. However, the main problem is, How can the police follow up the investigation report of the fact-finding team? We maintain that if the police continue the investigation properly other suspects could be prosecuted in court too, not just Polycarpus. This deficiency in the investigative process is the main problem now.

Another major problem is that there is no reaction from the president about the fact-finding investigation report handed to him in June 2005. Earlier the president gave us an assurance that he will publish the full report of this fact-finding inquiry, but that assurance has yet to be implemented with action. The main reason for this state of affairs is that the national police are not doing their jobs properly.

AHRC: We have spoken at great length about Munir's work and his death, but I know you too have worked tirelessly for justice, not only for your husband's case, but also for the realisation of justice to become much more entrenched in Indonesia's legal system. Could you explain specifically about some of the work you have begun in reaction to your husband's death?

 

Polycarpus Budihari Priyanto, an off-duty Garuda pilot on the flight on which Munir was killed, was sentenced to 14 years in prison in December 2005 for his murder.  It is believed though that the mastermind behind Munir's fatal poisoning has still not been identified and arrested. (Photo: EPA)

SUCIWATI: I have helped form a coalition of groups which are advocating justice for Munir's case, the Committee for Action and of Solidarity on Munir, or KASUM. I have also worked to form the Victims' Families Solidarity Network, or JSKK, for all the people of Indonesia who are engaged in a legal battle for justice

AHRC: How many people would you estimate there are in Indonesia today seeking justice?

SUCIWATI: Since 1965, there may be about one million people still suffering from discrimination for allegedly being Communists as well as others who have been tortured over the years. Some families also have relatives who were killed by law enforcement officials. These people were the victims of different social, political and economic conflicts throughout the years in Indonesia. There are so many victims in Indonesia who are still seeking justice.

AHRC: What are your thoughts about impunity in Indonesia?

 

SUCIWATI: We have experienced various patterns of human rights problems in Indonesia since 1965, but the creation of the mechanisms necessary to realise justice and truth in our country have been delayed. The formation of the human rights courts and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were repeatedly postponed, for instance; and without the proper establishment of these institutions, responding to human rights violations and injustice are only a whitewash of the country's human rights problems. I make this assertion because in the human rights courts almost all of the perpetrators have been acquitted of the charges against them. Moreover, only the perpetrators directly involved in the human rights violation, not the person or persons behind the violation, have been tried in these courts, and only a few human rights cases have been brought before these special courts because of the political unwillingness to do so. Thus, one can see that the human rights courts are not in a position to reveal the real truth towards all of the facts and expose what actually occurred.

There are similar concerns about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well, such as victims can only receive compensation if they are willing not to bring charges against the perpetrators. As a result, the perpetrators will be given amnesty. Under this arrangement, the victims and perpetrators are on the same level, and the victims will appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and testify about their cases.

We thought though that the case of a prominent human rights defender in Indonesia, like Munir, and with so much pressure and concern focused by the international community on Munir's case, it would provide a valuable indicator of the state of democracy and human rights in Indonesia. We thus feel that if we can get justice for Munir's case then the other cases of human rights victims will receive the same standard of justice from law enforcement authorities. Consequently, all of the other victims have great expectations for the just resolution of Munir's case as they believe that justice for Munir means justice for their cases too. However, there are many cases of victims seeking justice yet to be realised. It is evident that the courts and the existing system of justice are major problems for obtaining justice for the people.

During his life, Munir stood with the people whose human rights had been violated.  After his death, the people have stood with family in their efforts to attain justice for his murder.  It is believed that justice for Munir will also lead to justice for other victims.  (Photo: EPA)

One point must be emphasised. It is true that the courts have a great deal of power to render justice; but because of incorrect interpretations and the lack of clarity of the law, people still confront many problems. The courts too recognise that the actual law presents problems for them to uphold the notion of justice for the victims. We thus suggest that everyone should push for the law to be changed in such a manner that the courts will be in a better position to dispense justice for all victims who may come before them. I say firmly that in Indonesia, if everyone comes together and struggles as one force in demanding justice from the law enforcement authorities, we are sure to be victorious. If not, obtaining justice will only be a dream for Indonesia's people.

AHRC: How can these necessary changes be made to the system?

SUCIWATI: As I said previously, many people are working for justice in Munir's case as the people of Indonesia are well aware that this case will be an indicator for all other cases of human rights violations in the country. It is sad to note though that the president has not released the findings of the fact-finding team to the public. This fact-finding team worked for six months to analyse and discuss the facts that were brought before them by the public regarding Munir's murder. If the president releases the full results of the report of the fact-finding team that were given to him, we are sure that they will have a serious impact on the case. We thus ask for three actions to be taken if there is to be any chance of attaining justice for Munir's death: (1) we demand that the president release to the public the full results of the fact-finding team's report pertaining to Munir's case; (2) a detailed audit on the police's performance should be initiated; and (3) a new investigation team should be set up to resolve the unanswered questions about Munir's death.

AHRC: Why is the president afraid to publish this fact-finding report?

SUCIWATI: There may be some political reasons. One of the political reasons is that the former commander of the intelligence agency was the former commander of the current president when he was a general and has a very good relationship with the president, and perhaps he and other officials had a hidden hand in influencing the president not to publish the report. In other words, high-ranking military and police officials may have put pressure on the president not to publish the report of Munir's killing as they are well aware that this case will be a test case in the country. If justice is done in Munir's case, it will have a direct impact on all human rights issues that have occurred in Indonesia since 1965.

AHRC: What role, if any, has the international community played in Munir's case?

SUCIWATI: Actually, they have played a large role as almost every leading nation in the world has expressed concern about this case, not only the relevant NGOs in these countries, but also many government officials have been seriously interested in Munir's case as well. For example, in October, about 68 U.S. senators signed letters that were sent to our president demanding that he follow up the investigation into Munir's death. Through this effort and many others, the international community has been involved in Munir's case, which has put pressure on the Indonesian government to ensure that justice is the final outcome.

As the family members of Munir, we are asking the international community to continue these efforts, especially to work toward the initiation of an independent investigation. We do not believe that the trial of Polycarpus has answered all of the questions about his death. We also seek the support of the international community to find out why the president is not taking further action as he clearly stated earlier when he appointed the fact-finding team to investigate Munir's death that he would extend his fullest support for the team to conduct their investigation. Now, however, this promise is not being fulfilled.

AHRC: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts about Munir's case with us. I hope that you will soon enjoy justice for your husband's death as well as others in Indonesia who have suffered a similar fate.

Posted on 2006-01-28
     
 
Asian Human Rights Commission

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