A decade of injustice – time to find Munir’s real killers

By Papang Hidayat, Amnesty International’s Indonesia researcher

Yesterday marked exactly 10 years since Indonesia lost one of its most courageous and compassionate voices — Munir Said Thalib.

Indonesian human rights activist Munir was found dead on a Garuda Airlines flight from Jakarta to the Netherlands in 2004, as a result of arsenic poisoning. © Kontras
Indonesian human rights activist Munir was found dead on a Garuda Airlines flight from Jakarta to the Netherlands in 2004, as a result of arsenic poisoning. © Kontras

On 7 September 2004, Munir, as he was affectionately known, was slipped arsenic while in transit in Singapore during a trip to Amsterdam, and didn’t make it through the flight alive. A decade later, we’re still no closer to finding the masterminds behind his murder.

One of Indonesia’s most prominent human rights campaigners, Munir took up the cause of dozens of activists who were subjected to enforced disappearance. He co-founded two prominent human rights organizations, helped to uncover evidence of military responsibility for human rights violations in Aceh, Papua and Timor Leste (formerly East Timor), and made recommendations to the government on bringing high-ranking officials to justice. In September 1999, he was appointed to the Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations (KPP-HAM) in East Timor.

I was personally lucky enough to work closely with Munir before his tragic death. I first met him in 1996 when he was a human rights lawyer with the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation. I, along with other student activists, met him frequently at his office in 1998, when we organized many protests against Soeharto’s government.

Later, in 2004, he asked me to join his organization, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), where I worked for more than eight years before moving to Amnesty International. I remember Munir as not only a very courageous and persistent human rights defender, but also as an inspiring guru who trained many excellent rights activists in the country.

Many of us still live by one of his most famous sayings: “What we must fear most is fear itself, because fear affects our judgment.”

Although three people have been convicted of Munir’s murder, there are credible allegations that those responsible for his death at the highest levels have not been brought to justice. The three convicted were all employees of Garuda Indonesia, the state airline that Munir used on the day of his murder, but it is highly unlikely that they acted alone.

Former National Intelligence Agency (BIN) official Muchdi Purwopranjono faced trial in 2008, but was acquitted and many activists claim the process was flawed. Further, the findings of a 2005 independent fact-finding team into the killing, which was established by the authorities, was disregarded by the government and has never been published.

Munir’s case cannot be seen in isolation, but is indicative of the wider culture of impunity surrounding attacks and harassment of human rights defenders in the country. In Indonesian there’s even the word, dimunirkan (munirization), which applies when someone has been killed in mysterious circumstances.

Although the worst violence of the Soeharto era has subsided, many activists in Indonesia still live with daily threats, and it is all too rare that those responsible for the past killings of human rights defenders have been brought to justice.

While outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono showed little political will to bring Munir’s real killers to justice, president-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has made lofty promises to make human rights a priority once he takes office in October.

Unfortunately, Jokowi got off to an inauspicious start when he appointed Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, a former BIN head, to his transition team. Hendropriyono was the head of BIN at the time of Munir’s murder and many human rights groups believe was involved in Munir’s assassination — though Hendropriyono has always denied the allegations. Outrage from Munir’s widow at the appointment forced Jokowi’s camp to reaffirm their commitment to resolving Munir’s case.

When Jokowi takes office, he has a golden opportunity to send a clear message that impunity for the killing of human rights defenders will no longer be tolerated. A first step should be to release the 2005 fact-finding report into Munir’s killing to establish the truth. Secondly, he should ensure a new, independent police investigation into the case, so that everyone responsible — regardless of their official position — are held to account.

Munir was a unique voice and Indonesia owes him a debt of gratitude for all he has done for human rights in our country.

On the 10th anniversary of his death, the least we can do is ensure that his murder is not forgotten and that the real killers are brought to justice.

This piece originally appeared in the Jakarta Post on 7 September 2014.