New Inquiry into Indonesian Activist’s 2004 Murder Offers Hope For Truth

By Brian Dooley

Eighteen years after the legendary Human Rights Defender (HRD) Munir was assassinated on his journey from Jakarta to Amsterdam, we may finally be a step closer to the truth about his murder.

Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) formally formed an ad hoc team this month to investigate whether the killing constituted a serious human rights violation. That finding would open the door to new prosecutions despite the expiration of the statute of limitations and the prior acquittal of a suspect in the case.

An autopsy conducted by Dutch authorities at the time of Munir’s assassination indicated that he died as a result of arsenic poisoning. Like many murdered human rights activists, his assassination was preceded by threats and attacks. In 2003, a bomb exploded in front of his home in Jakarta. In the same year and the year before, mobs attacked the office of the human rights NGO KontraS, where he worked.

Human Rights First has worked with KontraS for many years, and in 2005 supported an advocacy effort that resulted in 68 members of the US Congress asking Indonesian authorities to reveal the full truth about what happened to Munir. The following year, Human Rights First honored Munir and his wife Suciwati with our Human Rights Defender Award. Along with other organizations, we have long pushed for an investigation that will uncover the whole truth, and this new announcement is an encouraging step.

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With previous efforts going nowhere, it is important that the investigative team has a strong mandate and the full support of Indonesia’s Attorney General and President. As Komnas HAM is in a lame duck phase, there must also be an explicit plan to bring the investigation and its recommendations to the next session of the Human Rights Commission.

Munir Said Thalib, commonly known simply as Munir, was a popular guy, a jazz lover who worked on enforced disappearance cases in the final months of the Suharto government in 1998. He also uncovered evidence of the security forces’ responsibility for human rights abuses in Aceh. Papua and Timor Leste.

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Munir had powerful enemies among the Indonesian authorities. The new investigation could provide new details about what happened to him and why. Komnas HAM’s team of five can recommend taking the case to a human rights court, and if the entire commission declares the murder a serious human rights crime — specifically a crime against humanity — the case can avoid the statute of limitations and double-spending. Unless more time is granted, the process is to last three months, followed by a recommendation.

“The story of Munir is the story of Indonesia’s struggle for human rights and democracy,” said Matt Easton, a former Human Rights First contributor who has written a new book about Munir’s assassination. “If the new investigation is a whitewash, or if its recommendations gather dust, neither story can end well.”

Accountability can take a long time, but it’s important that perpetrators understand that those who push for justice don’t shrug their shoulders and give up after a few years. Whether in Indonesia, Northern Ireland, or elsewhere around the world, Human Rights First continues to support those fighting for answers decade after decade.

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This effort is important not only to know what really happened years ago, but because impunity for past human rights abuses fuels the current ones.

Indonesian NGOs are gathering evidence that Munir’s murder was part of a larger widespread attack on human rights defenders. Earlier this month, KontraS and nine other Indonesia-based and international NGOs submitted a report to the UN Universal Periodic Review Process outlining the extent of ongoing attacks on human rights defenders in Indonesia. Fatia Maulidiyanti, KontraS coordinator, noted that Indonesia still lacks comprehensive laws protecting human rights defenders and that KontraS has documented “687 cases of violence against human rights defenders over the past five years”.

The Indonesian government should fully support the Komnas HAM investigation and act swiftly on the commission’s recommendations.

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