Sixteen years after the murder of Indonesia’s leading human rights activist, the architects of Munir Said Thalib’s killing remain free while his wife and two children are still traumatized over the loss of their husband and father.
Munir was found dead on Sept. 7, 2004, on a Garuda flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam. An autopsy by the Netherlands Forensic Institute concluded that Munir was killed by arsenic poisoning. He died about two hours before his flight landed at Schiphol airport.
Suciwati, Munir’s wife, immediately went to Amsterdam to pick up his body, burying him in their hometown in Batu, East Java.
The murder prompted global news headlines and outrage. Under pressure from Suciwati, an Indonesian human rights community and foreign governments, the Indonesian government acceded to demands to investigate.
Munir was arguably Indonesia’s most internationally recognized human rights lawyer. He helped set up the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS) to look into the abduction of dozens of activists at the end of president Soeharto’s authoritarian rule, the period from 1997 to 1999. Before that he worked at the Foundation of Indonesian Legal Aid Institute. Munir later joined a commission to investigate human rights violations in East Timor during a United Nations-sponsored referendum in 1999.
His reputation made him very unpopular among senior figures in the Indonesian military and intelligence services, which had operated with impunity under Soeharto. Because of the work of Munir and other activists, they were at risk of investigation and prosecution.
The killing shocked the country but what is often overlooked in these kinds of situations is the impact on family members. Munir’s killing forever changed the lives of Suciwati and her children.
Months after her husband’s death, Suciwati decided to move from their house in Bekasi. Suciwati told me, “I could not stand it. It had so many memories of Munir.”
There were other memories too: someone sent a dead chicken to the house, and in another incident, huge firecrackers were thrown at the house, blowing out the windows.
Their children, Soultan Alif Allende and Diva Suukyi Larasati, were only 6 and 2 years old when their father was murdered. As Alif was old enough to at least partially understand what was happening around him, Suciwati tried to protect him from watching news reports, fearing that the intense media coverage might affect him. “Diva was still a toddler, but Alif asked me about his father, ‘When will Abah come home?’”
The investigation into the killing showed a sophisticated plot that indicated the involvement of a larger, well-organized group. The court heard that an off-duty Garuda pilot, Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, had 41 telephone calls with a particular mobile phone number before and after Munir’s assassination.
The phone’s user was Maj. Gen. (ret) Muchdi Purwopranjono, a deputy director at the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), but the registered owner was Yohanes Hardian Wijanarko, a businessman in a timber firm.
Muchdi was the former commander of the Indonesian Army’s Special Forces group involved in abducting activists. He was removed from his position just days after Soeharto’s resignation in May 1998 and retired from the Army the next year.
In his court testimony, Muchdi confirmed that the mobile phone number was his, but he said the phone was frequently used by his driver and aides. He denied having ever met Pollycarpus, saying that he was in Kuala Lumpur that week without his phone.
In December 2005, a Jakarta court sentenced Pollycarpus, who had moved Munir from an economy to a business class seat, to 14 years in prison for putting the poison in his meal. The court also sentenced Indra Setiawan, Garuda’s then-chief executive officer, and Rohanil Aini, Garuda’s then-chief secretary, to one-year prison terms for producing falsified documents that allowed Pollycarpus on the flight.
In December 2008, the South Jakarta Court cleared Muchdi of responsibility in Munir’s killing due to a lack of evidence after trial proceedings dogged by allegations of witness intimidation. No senior figures in the security services have been held accountable.
When Alif was in first grade, despite his mother’s efforts to protect him, he saw a TV news report about the trial. He froze, shouting and screaming.
When Diva was 2.5 years old, she suddenly asked her mother, “Why was Abah killed?”
Suciwati said she was shocked. All she could do, she says, was hug her children, talk about their pain and try to heal.
In 2010, the children wanted to move further away from Jakarta, so they moved to Batu in East Java. Suciwati built a small museum dedicated to Munir in Batu.
Both children are now young adults. They are now making short films about their family and their father, with whom they had far too little time.
Suciwati says that “Alif’s trauma is not over yet. But mine is also not over. How do you have closure after such a murder? How do you have a closure when you suspect that many of the perpetrators, those who knew about the plan, are still free, and even have more power?” ***
The writer is senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch.