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Widow of Murdered Indonesian Human Rights Activist Munir Calls on Indonesia to Hold His Govt. Killers Responsible

StoryNovember 09, 2010
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We look at the case of Munir Thalib, an Indonesian human rights activist and a prominent critic of the Indonesian government and military. He was poisoned to death aboard a flight to Holland in September 2004. An off-duty pilot was found guilty for his death, but prosecutors ignored the findings of an independent investigation that pointed to the involvement of Indonesia’s State Intelligence Agency. We speak with his widow, Suciwati Munir, who has led the struggle for justice in her husband’s murder. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan, I wanted to talk about the case of Munir, Munir Thalib, the Indonesian human rights activist, the most important human rights activist in Indonesia, or I should say the most well-known one, because when we were in Bonn, Germany recently for a gathering of the Right Livelihood Award winners, he was one of the laureates. I met his wife, Suciwati. And we want to play her description of what happened to her husband. But I’d like you to set it up, who Munir was, what his significance is, and how that relates to what we’re talking about today — the Indonesian military, Kopassus and human rights abuses.

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, Munir was a great man. He was a friend of mine. He was brilliant. Many Indonesians rightly saw him as a possible great future leader of the country. He was the toughest, most outspoken, most fearless human rights advocate. And the military killed him for it.

There was a very telling incident right after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. Munir, at that time, he had various human rights groups, and he was getting some money for them from USAID. So he had a relationship with the U.S. embassy. But he went out and led demonstrations against the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The U.S. embassy called him in and chewed him out and told him that he was consorting with and aiding terrorists. And while this was going on, the Indonesian military, under General Wiranto, sent thugs to attack him in his office and accused him of being a puppet of the United States, which is hypocritical since they were receiving weapons from the United States. But for demagogic reasons, they said he was the U.S. puppet. So they sent the mobs after him, while the U.S. was accusing him with playing with the terrorists. But Munir always spoke his mind and opposed the killing of civilians.

And what happened to him was he, at one point, became burnt out, essentially. It seemed to me that he needed rest. And he decided to go to the Netherlands to study, to work on a law advanced studies program. He boarded a flight, and he died on the plane. He vomited to death from arsenic poisoning. He was slipped arsenic — and this has been established in court — by an agent of BIN, the Indonesian presidential intelligence agency. That agent was in direct communication right before and right after the poisoning with the general, General Muchdi, who was the number-two man of BIN, the presidential intelligence agency. Now, the BIN was and is today an associate of the American CIA. They have a relationship that is seemingly beneficial, which has been described to me as being extremely close. And in fact, the man who was boss of BIN at the time that the BIN killed Munir, the General Hendropriyono, was so close to the U.S. that he was granted personal meetings with Tenet, then the CIA chief, and Mueller, then the FBI chief, and he was often brought over to Langley for consultation. And his right-hand man, General Muchdi, went out and had Munir poisoned on the plane.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break early and then come back and hear a clip of Munir himself and then go to his wife Suciwati, who continues to call for justice in the murder of her husband and to call for the end of human rights abuses in Indonesia. We’re speaking with Allan Nairn, journalist and activist, who has just released at allannairn.com documents from Kopassus itself, including a target list, an enemies list that includes everyone from a Baptist minister in West Papua to the head of the Muslim Youth organization there. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue on the case of Munir Thalib, an Indonesian human rights activist who founded Indonesia’s Commission for Disappearances and Victims of Violence. A prominent critic of the Indonesian government and military, he was poisoned to death aboard a Garuda flight, the national airlines of Indonesia, when he was headed to Holland in September of 2004. An off-duty pilot named Pollycarpus Priyanto was found guilty for his death, but prosecutors ignored the findings of an independent investigation that pointed to the involvement of Indonesia’s State Intelligence Agency. To date, no Indonesian officials have been held accountable for Munir’s death.

This is Munir speaking at a rally just weeks before his murder.

MUNIR THALIB: [translated] They have seized power. They carry guns. They kill people and hide behind those in power. Should we let these cowards keep acting tough? No, they’re only tough when they’re in uniform. But deep down, they are scum. They are irresponsible, and they will pay.

AMY GOODMAN: That is from an excerpt of the documentary Garuda’s Deadly Upgrade.

Well, this past September, just days after the sixth anniversary of Munir’s death, I spoke to his widow, Suciwati Munir, in Bonn, Germany. We were attending the 30th anniversary the Right Livelihood Awards. An Indonesian activist, Suciwati Munir has led the struggle for justice in her husband’s murder. I began by asking her if she noticed anything unusual in the weeks before Munir was killed.

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] On the 5th of September, there is an unusual thing. He got a phone call, but he left his cell phone at the time at home. He was outside. Someone who said his name is Polly from Garuda —

AMY GOODMAN: From Garuda?

TRANSLATOR: From Garuda.

AMY GOODMAN: The airlines.


SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] He asked about the schedule of Munir’s flight. I felt uncomfortable at the time, and I think it’s very, very unusual for me, and it’s only my instinct. And then, later, I found out that this man has a connection with the murder of my husband.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Munir goes to the airport. He’s flying in the Indonesian airlines, Garuda, to the Netherlands. And what happened next?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] So, on 7 September, I get a phone call from Usman Hamid, the coordinator of Kontras, the organization where Munir worked. He told me that Munir died. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe, so I tried to call directly to the Garuda office in Jakarta and in Schiphol, in the Netherlands, but I didn’t get any confirmation about it. And then I called Garuda Jakarta three times and then also Garuda Schiphol, but I didn’t get any response. I got very angry, and then I told this person whose name was Jan, I said that “This is my husband. I have the right to know about him.” And then this person said, “Yeah, I see Munir, he’s dead here. But please don’t tell the public about this story.”

AMY GOODMAN: And where was that person?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] He’s an officer in Garuda.


SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] In Indonesia.

AMY GOODMAN: “Please don’t tell anyone,” he said.


AMY GOODMAN: How did you start to learn about what happened to him on this plane ride?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] So, first, I want to — after the burial, first thing that I want to find out is I want to meet the people who helped him on the plane, because they said that he was sick and then some people helped him. So I want to meet those persons. And from that situation, I can know which person who was around my husband as he was sick. And then I asked the director of Garuda, Indra Setiawan, about the person which named Polly. And he answered very quickly, and he said, “Oh, his name is Pollycarpus.” I was amazed at the time, because Garuda has about 7,000 staff, and then why could he answer it so quickly? From that, we got the motivation to investigate this case further.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you find?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] I met Pollycarpus directly. I talked to him, and I saw that there was some unusual thing on this person. And he was never consistent about what he’s saying, from one question to another question, or for a same question he always has a different answer.

AMY GOODMAN: Did he give your husband Munir his seat in first class?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] So, what he told me, that he met my husband, and he offered my husband to move the seat from economic class to business class. That was what he told me. I met the doctor who helped him as he was sick on the plane.

AMY GOODMAN: The doctor who was a passenger?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: Yes, yes. [translated] And then I asked him, together with my relative, who is also a doctor, and I asked him what kind of medicine he gave Munir at the time. It was about before the fact-finding mission was formed, because there were so many suspicious things there. So it was confirmed by the autopsy result from the Netherlands that Munir’s death was because of the high level of arsenic.

AMY GOODMAN: Who do you think murdered Munir? Who do you think ordered his murder?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] So, in the court, there was a witness. His name is Padma. He was a BIN agent. On the court, he said that he was ordered to kill Munir by the deputy three of the National Intelligence Party. And then the fact-finding team found a fact that there was a phone conversation between Pollycarpus and Muchdi.

AMY GOODMAN: Muchdi is?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] Muchdi Purwoprandjono is deputy five in BIN.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s a high-level — he’s a general in the military intelligence?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] He’s a major-general, and he was the general who’s ordered the kidnap of the students in 1998. And he was fired from his work about 40 days, about, before his retirement.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you want to happen right now?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] So, what I want right now is the mastermind is sent to jail, not free. But until now, only the field operator who is sentenced.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, President Obama has just restored aid to Kopassus. Can you explain who Kopassus are and what this means?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] So, Kopassus is a special force in the army in Indonesia, and they are always used to — like, to counter terrorism in Indonesia. But in 1998, Kopassus was involved in kidnapping the students, the student activists.

AMY GOODMAN: Like Jafar?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] So, Jafar was killed, and like Nezar Patria, Mugianto, Jati was kidnapped, and they are back, but there are still many other students who are still missing until now.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Kopassus’s responsibility?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] So, there was a council founded by the President at the time, and then the council said that the most responsible person for this event was Prabowo. So, Prabowo was the commandant of Kopassus, and after that he was fired.

AMY GOODMAN: And he was the son-in-law of Suharto.

SUCIWATI MUNIR: Yeah. [translated] So, he was only administratively fired, but the case was never brought to court.

AMY GOODMAN: So what does it mean that President Obama has restored funding to Kopassus?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] I am very disappointed, because until now, the case who was committed by Kopassus has never been resolved in the court. So there was maybe some court, but the court freed all the perpetrators. Only the field operator who was punished. If there is no responsibility from the Kopassus, then we cannot be sure that there will be no repetition in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: So what is your message to President Obama?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] So, if Obama has a commitment to human rights in the world, particularly in Indonesia, so he has to pay attention to the situation, the human rights situation in Indonesia. And the first thing that he should ask to President SBY is to ask to resolve the Munir case. I’m sure that Obama knows Munir, because Munir told me that he ever met Obama, they discussed about the human rights. And Munir was killed and has two children, and Obama also has two children. Munir fought for human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Is President Obama’s actions important in Indonesia?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] I think Obama’s role is very important, because there are so many cooperation between Indonesian government and U.S. government. And I believe that Obama has a vision in humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: What message did President Obama send when he restored Kopassus funding?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] So, it’s as if he sent message that, OK, the human rights situation in Indonesia is now good. But in fact, every Thursday evening, Thursday afternoon, we stand in front of the president palace asking for justice for the human rights victims.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think President Obama was wrong to restore aid to Kopassus?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] I think it is not the time yet. Firstly, he should find out about the progress of the human rights violations committed by Kopassus, and then he might take some actions, whether he would like to help or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you like to meet with President Obama if he comes to Indonesia?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe yes, because I want to remind him about the human rights situation in Indonesia. Maybe not, because of his wrong decision, has perpetuated the impunity in Indonesia.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what do you tell your children about their father Munir, about what happened to him and who he was?

SUCIWATI MUNIR: [translated] I told them about the father, who he is, about his love to humanity, about his fight for human rights in Indonesia, and that he loves his children, Alif and Diva. But, of course, I told them that their father will not be back because someone has killed him, the irresponsible person who don’t like that human rights exist in Indonesia. The most important thing is that they have a father that they can be proud of.

AMY GOODMAN: Suciwati Munir, the widow of Munir Thalib, who was murdered in September 2004 as he was taking an Indonesian flight, the national airlines called Garuda. He was poisoned to death. He was killed just before Yudhoyono, the current Indonesian president, came to power. He said it would be his highest priority to investigate the killing.

We’re back with Allan Nairn, speaking to us from Jakarta, journalist and activist, knew Munir well. Your final thoughts on Munir, as we talk about Obama’s visit, Allan?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, Munir was one of the great hopes of Indonesia. He was murdered. Jafar Hamzah had become the great hope for Aceh. He was a human rights lawyer who was representing — making an opening for Aceh to the world to talk about human rights and what the military was doing there. He went back home. He was abducted. He disappeared for months. I went to look for him. When his body eventually turned up, I couldn’t recognize him. His family couldn’t recognize him. His chest had multiple stab wounds. His hands were bound behind his back. He was found with four other bodies in identical condition. This is what happens to the clearest, smartest, boldest leaders. And the people who had done this are still in power in Indonesia. And they continue doing it, now most intensively in Papua.

And the U.S. role — you know, last night I spoke to Buchtar Tabuni, one of those on the Kopassus enemies list, who’s in jail in Papua. He’s in jail because he waved the Papuan flag, because he said some critical things. In jail, they beat him half to death. Yesterday — two days ago, he issued an open letter to Obama, written from his jail cell. He called for Indonesia to be brought before the World Court on the question of independence for Papua. He called for Obama to urge a free vote, a referendum on Papuan independence. And he made a very important point. He said if you talk about something like human rights in Indonesia or in other countries, the U.S. is not a judge, it shouldn’t be seen as a judge. It’s a perpetrator. It’s a perpetrator if it’s providing arms to terrorists. It’s a perpetrator if it’s providing weapons. And that’s exactly what the U.S. has done. Clinton, the Clinton White House, called Suharto, the old dictator, “our kind of guy.” And that’s what Obama is doing now with Kopassus.

Terrorism fighting terrorism is their rationale. Terrorism means killing civilians. If you use that objective definition, then the main terrorists in Indonesia are the armed forces and the police, who have killed hundreds of thousands, versus hundreds who have been killed by the recent wave of armed Islamists. And when the U.S. backs the military and the police to fight terrorism, it’s a little like backing the Pakistani military ISI, Inter-Services Intelligence, to fight the Taliban, when they, at the original U.S. behest, helped to create the Taliban and still back them today. The Indonesian military plays both sides of the fence. They’ve backed violent groups like Laskar Jihad, like the FPI. When the new jihadist groups are busted, it always seems there are a few policemen and military people and BIN informants in their midst. In fact, it’s in the secret Kopassus documents —

AMY GOODMAN: Allan, Allan, we’re going to come back to you, but I wanted to ask John Miller of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network, what you’re calling for, very briefly.

JOHN MILLER: Well, briefly, we would like to see President Obama, first of all, apologize for U.S. policy towards Indonesia. As a child, he grew up in the Suharto years. He’s familiar with what Suharto did and the U.S backing of it. Second, is —

AMY GOODMAN: Killed a half-a-million to a million Indonesians.

JOHN MILLER: Indonesians, invaded East Timor, took over West Papua. And second, as a start, end cooperation with Kopassus and the police counterterrorism unit, which has an awful human rights record, Detachment 88. And third, go to the U.N. and see that those that were indicted, like the deputy defense minister, who were indicted in East Timor, are brought to trial. Those would be important steps the U.S. can take.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, your final thoughts from Jakarta, where President Obama is right now?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, as John mentioned, it’s very important to cut off Detachment 88. In the Malukus, they went in and tortured prisoners. In Papua, they raided and arrested people for sending SMSes critical of General Susilo, the president of Indonesia. There’s a claim by Washington that, for Kopassus, they will vet out the bad officers and not give them the U.S. training. The previous U.S. training, by the way, has included urban warfare, psychological warfare, advanced sniper technique, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.

ALLAN NAIRN: The U.S. should stop supporting those who kill civilians. And if a justice system was working, Obama could be arrested when he set foot in Indonesia, because he’s giving arms to killers, and that makes one an accessory to murder. That happens every day in domestic courts.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Allan Nairn, thank you for joining us from Jakarta, award-winning journalist. John Miller, thank you for joining us here.

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