The ABCs of torture in Indonesia

Dr Philip Setunga, Programme Coordinator, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

Being a policeman is not so much a profession in Indonesia as it is a matter of social status. It does not matter whether you are on duty or not, whether you wear a uniform or not and what people expect from you. It is your persona that has to be respected.

Dressed as a civilian, Maryono, a Jakarta policeman formally associated with the Intelligence and Protection Unit of the Metro Jaya police station in Tangerang in West Java, on 4 July 2007 met Sumandi, an acquaintance. Maryono accused Sumandi of trying to kill him in the past. Such an accusation without evidence would be illegal in many countries, but an Indonesian policeman does not need to worry about making allegations outside the boundaries of the criminal justice system. It is his persona that gives him a license to do so, not his profession.

A bit of slapping by Maryono ensured that Sumandi would start to defend himself. Defense can then be used as a rationale for further aggression, for no one can attack a police officer. This is the moment to get some others to join in. After two of Maryono’s subordinates arrived, the beating went on until Sumandi was brought to the police station.

Once at the station, it was easy to involve other policemen in the physical and verbal assault. Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 11.25.48 AMSumandi was not able to resist. He was attacked until his body was swollen, bleeding open wounds covered his face, and concussion ensured that not enough memory would be left to identify all of the perpetrators later.

Finally, Sumandi was brought to a doctor who was able to apply first aid. Depending on the hospital and the doctors, such a visit can result in a medical record that can be used in court to prove torture. Conversely, the medical

This article consists of the edited text from a series of weekly commentaries, entitled Indonesian Justice, written for UPI Asia Online. All of the original columns, and others, can be read on the UPI website: may not indicate a violent assault by law enforcement officers at all, and thus, no evidence of torture is produced: that is the duty of the doctor as understood by the police.

After two days, when the worst injuries no longer appeared so shocking, Sumandi’s family was at last allowed to visit him. It also took days until he was actually charged with the attempted murder of the policeman. Sumandi’s family members had to go to the Metro Jaya police station in Jakarta to file a case against Maryono. However, as Indonesia is not known for compensating victims or enforcing its laws against the police and military, Sumandi and his family do not have high expectations that justice will be done.

Why are such events repeated continuously in Indonesia? Is torture just a part of the culture? If culture is seen as an unchangeable aspect of society, then torture surely is not culture. Many societies have overcome violence by the police and armed forces, but whether Indonesia will also reach that stage is not an issue of culture but an issue of establishing and properly using a justice system that will not let police or soldiers rest with the belief that they are above the law, or that they are the law.

Indonesian democracy under threat

On 13 May 2007, members of the Indonesian military allegedly attacked the regional office of the National Liberation Party of Unity, or Papernas, in the Central Sulawesi provincial capital of Palu. Three party officials were severely beaten and suffered serious injuries. Most worrisome though is that it appears that this attack had the tacit approval of the state.

One of the perpetrators, Pfc. Makmur, was arrested and transferred to the Palu military police headquarters. Col. Husein Malik, commander of the Palu 132/Tadulako Subdistrict Military Command, or Korem, admitted that Makmur, one of his subordinates, was involved. But he denied that the attack was premeditated or motivated by the political interests of the army, despite the attackers being described as being heavily built, with short-cropped hair and military boots.

This was not the first incident of its kind. On April 29, for instance, a meeting to establish a branch management board of Papernas in Central Java in Tanjung Anom, Grogol, Sukoharjo, was forcibly dispersed. Similarly, when Papernas held a meeting at the Gajah Building in Tanjung Anom not long ago, members of the Islamic Defenders Front came and asked that the event be canceled because they claimed that Papernas represented the defunct Communist Party of Indonesia. On March 4 the front had already attacked a conference organized by Papernas in East Java. A March 28 demonstration was also attacked: 15 buses were destroyed and five people injured.

All of the attacks occurred despite Papernas having obtained approval from the local authorities for their meetings or other activities. Furthermore, despite Papernas informing the authorities of the possibility of attacks, these warnings produced no tangible results, other than seeing that police were present to observe the violence and coercion.

What is particularly disturbing is the apparently deliberate and systematic attempts by members of the police and army to cover up these events, refrain from conducting the necessary investigations and even allow some of their members to be involved. If the violence had only occurred once, it could be dismissed as incidental; but when a pattern of inaction emerges, law enforcement authorities are either openly supporting the attacks or deliberately declining to prosecute those responsible.

Democracy in Indonesia cannot grow until, and unless, the institutions that guarantee freedom of speech, opinion and association are allowed to operate independently. Moreover, a healthy democracy requires that when such freedoms are violated legal mechanisms exist to provide remedies. Unfortunately, the mechanisms for remedies in Indonesia apparently are hindered from fulfilling their responsibilities due to a host of factors: for example, the prevailing culture of impunity, a police force that lacks independence, absence of a tradition and ethos of impartial and effective investigations, and inadequate supervision by the attorney general’s office.

Despite the frustrations of ordinary people, these organized attacks have not been discussed and debated in parliament. It appears that the legacy of the New Order regime continues to stifle the work of national institutions and inhibit the transfer of power to ordinary Indonesians.

A prosecution system on trial

There is a sense of relief in Indonesia that some progress is being made into the murder of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib. Two former officials of Garuda Airlines have been arrested on charges of falsifying documents that apparently enabled his murder by poisoning aboard a Garuda flight in 2004.

However, given the past reluctance of the police and attorney general’s office to conduct efficient, impartial and effective investigations into past crimes and human rights violations, it is hardly surprising that people have low expectations. Will investigations focus primarily on the falsification of documents that enabled accused killer Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, an off-duty Garuda pilot, to be on the flight, or will they seek out important clues to solving Munir’s murder?

The prosecution in Indonesia has thus far conveniently taken cover behind technicalities in domestic legislation and/or in its application and has dodged all serious attempts at conducting investigations into any of the major human rights violations committed by the government there, despite protests from both the local and international community. Numerous attempts to appeal to the attorney general have been futile. The impression given is that critics are expecting the impossible.

Under Suharto, there was neither the need nor the possibility for a proper system of criminal investigation to emerge. The national administration neither required nor wanted it. The executive’s grip on the judiciary was so tight that the notion of impartiality itself was lost. The police were subservient to the military. Until recently, the police had no autonomy, and their role in criminal investigations was often subordinate. Advanced investigation techniques were not encouraged.

In this context, the use of torture as a method of investigation became commonplace. This fact of life is confirmed by the half- hearted approach of the government toward ratifying the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Though the convention was eventually ratified in 1998, no proper corresponding domestic legislation has been passed to criminalize the act, thereby denying the use of the law to prevent torture or to offer redress to victims.

The departure of Suharto in 1998 cannot by itself ensure the emergence of a proper criminal investigation system. The sense of futility; continuation of the same people in various positions; prevailing corruption, including in the judiciary; demand for the police to play military roles; and the simple absence of the habit of conducting impartial and effective investigations have barred the emergence of an effective criminal investigation system.

People in Indonesia have clung to the hope that the investigation of Munir’s murder would trigger the gradual emergence of just such a system. Whether or not the present political leadership is willing and able to provide the democratic space required remains to be seen. If not, there is little hope that the human rights of Indonesia’s people can be promoted and protected.

Rights pledge should be followed by action

Given the aversion of Indonesia’s government to ending the culture of impunity which has provided legal cover to the perpetrators of gross human rights violations there, one can only wonder about the declaration of the minister of law and human rights, Hamid Awaluddin, on 12 March 2007, at the fourth session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. In it, he stated that Indonesia is ready to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

In fact, it is the people of Indonesia who have continued their struggle to find justice for the huge numbers of victims of abduction, torture and murder across the archipelago. It is this lifelong struggle of the victims, their families and concerned individuals and organisations that has apparently compelled the state to make this decision.

However, the decision, when seen against the backdrop of the series of massacres beginning in 1965, will no doubt be a major challenge to the Indonesian government. The victims of the massacres of 1965, Semanggi I and II, Trisakti, Tanjung Priok, Talangsari, the democracy activists in 1998 and 1999, the May 1998 riots, East Timor, Papua and Aceh have not given up their hopes for justice. The question is whether the Indonesian government will live up to its obligations without failing the Indonesian people and the international community. The Indonesian government will be judged not on its promises but on its actions.

Judging from its past performance, however, there is little cause for optimism. The government has failed miserably to promote and protect human rights for many decades. The creation of the Ad Hoc Human Rights Tribunal, for example, was designed to hear all cases deemed “gross violations of human rights” committed in both East Timor and Indonesia, but it failed to prosecute any of the people responsible for widespread abuses. Similarly, the domestic law against torture passed on the occasion of the ratification of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has been so woefully inadequate that within the past 13 years not a single prosecution has been made, nor have the endless victims of human rights violations been awarded compensation or restitution.

Any government that is party to a UN human rights convention is obliged to enact corresponding domestic legislation that guarantees the rights incorporated in the convention by bringing them in to law. The long-suffering people of Indonesia, who are far too familiar with military abductions, enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings, deserve not only the promise of prosecution for cases of enforced disappearances in the future, but also an effective, transparent, accountable and easily accessible mechanism for redress in order to attain compensation, restitution, rehabilitation and punishment.

Seeking justice for the dead and disappeared

It is impossible to comprehend from the outside what it means for a family to live through the loss of one of its members—be it a father, son, mother or daughter—as the result of incomprehensible, brutal actions by the state. When a family member is killed for some unknown reason, or simply on suspicion of having committed a crime or being a member of a movement that has suddenly been declared illegal, what are people to do? When a family member fails to come home and no body is ever found, and the state does nothing and is thought to be responsible, what can people do?

In Indonesia, millions of families have been affected by such tragedies. In the developed world, in countries that for the most part respect human rights, there would be options. In Indonesia there are none at present. Such crimes, perpetrated on a massive scale in recent decades, have not been investigated and remain unsolved and unpunished, while those responsible enjoy a life of impunity.

How can a nation continue not only to ignore this reality, but persist in committing the same crimes over and over again? What efforts have to be made by the state to legitimize such cruelty and at what cost? Could such efforts not be put into creating state mechanisms to prevent such atrocities?

Indonesia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council and has pledged to protect and promote human rights to the highest possible standards. Are we to believe that mass killings and disappearances going unresolved represent such standards?

These are the questions that the Indonesian state and its people have been grappling with for years. The failure to publicly recognize the gravity of the situation in good faith and to take action to ensure the prevention of such abuses in future has contributed to the perpetuation of a culture of violence that is hard to overcome.

This culture has prevailed since 1965—a time of unparalleled violence in the country, in which it is conservatively estimated that over 1.5 million persons were killed or disappeared. It is customary for older generations to provide the younger generation a living memory of what a nation has been, which perpetuates a nation’s culture and identity. When all voices of opposition are silenced and when the memories of times past are tainted with blood, the nation’s cultural legacy and identity suffer greatly, as does the respect for life, the hallmark of any civilization.

By tradition, Indonesians exhibit great respect for life. This is manifest in the manner in which the dead are revered, the rituals surrounding funerals, the manner that dead bodies are respected and adorned, the place of burials, and customs following burials. It is seen as an obligation and a right for family members to recover the body of a deceased person in order to pay their last respects. A denial of this right profoundly offends the aggrieved party. In the many cases of disappearance that have occurred in and since 1965, the victims’ families suffer from this continuous pain.

Indonesia is failing to accept and deal with its terrible past, from the massacres under the Suharto regime in 1965, through the following decades in which further mass killings and disappearances occurred. Successive governments have either denied or legitimized these atrocities.

August 30 is the International Day of the Disappeared. It is an occasion for Indonesia to assert its commitment to its people and to move forward in nation building. Indonesia should commit to the rapid ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the promulgation of the corresponding national legislation that is required in order to criminalize disappearances and ensure adequate punishment and reparation concerning such acts. Efforts to cover up the past will stunt all attempts at nation building and sustainable development in Indonesia, leaving the country stuck in the throes of its growing pains.

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