A Spy Brought to Book in Indonesia

Traces of
the murder of a human rights activist climb higher into Jakarta’s
power structure

indonesiaAs far as
headquarters go, the small office tucked behind a crumbling villa in
central Jakarta, with just four computers and a fish tank, is
underwhelming. But from this room, dedicated rights activists have
waged a battle with Indonesia’s most powerful institutions for
four years. And to the surprise of everyone, they are making ground.

The
tireless campaigning of the “Action Committee in Solidarity for
Munir” helped to bring about the arrest earlier this month of
retired major-general Muchdi Purwoprandjono, who now faces charges
over the premeditated murder of high-profile activist Munir Said
Thalib, who was poisoned aboard an airplane on his way to Amsterdam.

The arrest
of Muchdi, a former head of the Special Forces and the deputy chief
of the country’s main intelligence agency until early 2005,
took everyone by surprise. Not because he was an unlikely suspect in
the case but because people thought that the former military man was
untouchable.

Indonesia’s
military has long been immune from prosecution. No senior military
officer has ever been imprisoned for human rights violations despite
the disappearance of student activists under the Suharto regime and
the many and varied reports of military abuses in Papua, Aceh and
the-now-independent East Timor.

While
Muchdi’s arrest was welcomed as a significant breakthrough in
the case, Munir’s supporters, including his widow Suciwati,
claim the trail does not stop with him. They are pushing for the
arrest and questioning of more senior officials, including the former
head of the intelligence agency, Hendropriyono.

They may
be left unsatisfied. Close observers of the country are skeptical
about whether Muchdi’s detention is a harbinger of more arrests
to come.

“Muchdi
was no longer in a position of influence and while he has some
important friends, he was somebody who was dispensable, perhaps, in
the security hierarchy,” says
Sidney Jones, senior adviser at the International Crisis Group.

“I
don’t think that this necessarily means that we’re going
to see prosecutions of past abuses on the military.”

Even so,
“it was a very important arrest given Muchdi’s
seniority,” she says.

“After
the news of Munir’s murder came out no one believed that the
investigation would go beyond the lowest level.”

Andi
Kurniawan peers over the stacks of files on his desk at the Munir
Action Committee headquarters. The graphically enhanced image of
Munir against a red background stares down from the scores of posters
around the room. The office is like a shrine to the activist, who
spent his life railing against human rights violations and
corruption.

“Muchdi
was not the only actor in this conspiracy,” Andi says. And to
emphasise his point he pulls out a chart with photos of the main
players he believes were involved. Lines criss-cross the page to show
the various links between each player and their role in the
assassination. Muchdi ranks somewhere in the middle, alongside other
deputy chiefs of the security agency and below Hendropriyono.

“We
are not really confident these people will be brought to justice but
we hope they will,” Andi says.

Munir’s
assassination rocked the nation, not only because of the loss of the
country’s most high-profile critic of the Suharto family and
the military but because the bizarre nature of the crime, with links
to the top spy agency and the national airline, made for a gripping
tale.

Munir was
poisoned with arsenic en route to Amsterdam, where he was going to
take up a Master’s degree in international law. He was just 38
years old. Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, an off-duty Garuda pilot,
gave up his seat in business class for the activist and shared a
drink with him during a stopover at Singapore’s airport. It was
there that he is believed to have spiked Munir’s drink. Earlier
this year he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder.

The former
CEO of Garuda, Indonesia’s national airline, was also jailed
for one year for helping with the plot, by making sure Pollycarpus
was assigned as part of the security team on Munir’s flight.

Muchdi’s
links with Pollycarpus were uncovered two years ago by a fact-finding
team set up by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to help with the
investigation. It claimed that Pollycarpus and Muchdi phoned each
other 35 times, with the most calls taking place in November 2004,
just after it was made public that Munir died of arsenic poisoning.
Muchdi insists he has no knowledge of the calls, suggesting that
someone else could have used his phone.

Muchdi’s
name was also mentioned in the sworn statement of a former
intelligence officer, Budi Santoso, who claims that he was often
ordered to check on Pollycarpus.

But
Munir’s supporters believe the mastermind behind the
assassination was further up the chain of command.

“The
Muchdi arrest is a very significant achievement of the police and
will reduce the military impunity in Indonesia,” says Usman
Hamid, who now heads the human rights organization founded by Munir.

“But
we believe that there is another person who played a more significant
role in the murder of Munir and we urge that the police also
investigate the former chief of the intelligence agency
(Hendropriyono).”

Hendropriyono
has repeatedly dismissed allegations he was involved in the plot.

Muchdi is
now being held in a detention centre in South Jakarta, which has been
criticised for its special treatment of detainees.

Reform of
Indonesia’s military and security agencies, while slow, has
been much more progressive than in countries like the Philippines and
Thailand. The military has no formal role in politics any more. It
has given up its seats in parliament and declared its neutrality in
elections.

However,
many see this separation of powers as superficial. And the Muchdi
arrest has been held up as a sign that there should be more reform,
particularly of the spy agency.

“This
case demonstrates need to have more effective reform and oversight of
the intelligence community,” says Hamid. “We don’t
have laws that define the role of intelligence, the power of the
intelligence agency and the limits of that power.”

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