Friday marked the eight-year anniversary of the death of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib, but his struggle lives on in a new generation of activists.
“He was the one who inspired me to join LBH Jakarta [Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation],” said Muhammad Isnur, 28.
Now in his fourth year at the foundation, Isnur said that Munir would always be a role model he looked up to while doing his work as a public defender at the advocacy organization.
“He’s a true defender of humanity, a true activist,” Isnur said. “Even after he finished his term at LBH Jakarta he continued defending the rights of others.
“I also took up some labor cases because I knew he had done the same.”
Munir was killed on board a Garuda Indonesia flight from Singapore to Amsterdam after drinking a beverage that was spiked with arsenic.
Off-duty pilot Pollycarpus Priyanto was convicted of Munir’s murder in 2005. The conviction was invalidated in 2006 for insufficient evidence, before being reinstated in 2008.
To date, however, none of the suspected masterminds behind the murder have been jailed, with Muchdi Purwopranjono, the former national intelligence deputy chief, acquitted of murder charges.
“Before his death I already heard about Munir because he was a graduate of HMI [Islamic Students Association] and he was famous as someone who went through a drastic change from a hard-line militant to a humanist,” Isnur said. “We even had the same background. I was also raised in a fundamentalist environment. I went to Islamic boarding schools.
“I re-read the Koran and found many passages that put forth the importance of being good to others.”
Munir started his work in legal aid in 1989 at LBH Surabaya before being appointed secretary at the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) in 1996.
Rizka Argandianti Rachmah’s knowledge of Munir came by chance.
“It was at a human rights course I took in 2009 at Kontras,” said the 23-year-old, referring to the Commission on Missing Persons and Victims of Violence.
Rizka, who said she only knew of Munir from the news, is now a program assistant at the Human Rights Working Group.
“I had just graduated from high school when he died, so I didn’t know much about him,” she added. “I joined the course [at Kontras] because as a [member of a persecuted minority], I wanted to know what my rights are and how to defend them.”
Old case, new energy
Rizka and Isnur are among those who have participated in a Twitter campaign that was started last week by investigative journalist Dandhy Dwi Laksono.
“Replace your avatar with [Munir’s] picture for eight days, so that this 8-year-old case can get new energy and not be forgotten,” Dandhy wrote on his Twitter account last Sunday.
The campaign hopes to draw at least two million followers on the micro-blogging site by Friday, or about 10 percent of Twitter users in the country.
Deputy Justice Minister Denny Indrayana, celebrities Julia Perez and Glenn Fredly, and former Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Faisal Basri have all joined in.
“Young people need to know Munir, not just about him as a person but his works,” Rizka said, a statement that was echoed by Kontras’s Yati Andriyani.
“We still see rights violations today because those in the past went largely unpunished,” she said.
“Even now we can see those who are supposed to be responsible for rights violations vying for the political stage.”
She was referring to retired Army generals Wiranto and Prabowo Subianto. Hailing from the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) and the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), respectively, both are considered likely presidential candidates in 2014.
Wiranto and Prabowo were allegedly responsible of human rights violations by the military in the days surrounding the fall of Suharto in 1998. Rights activists have also held Wiranto responsible for the wave of violence in East Timor in 1999.
“These are all gross violations of human rights that do not have a statute of limitations,” Yati said.
With some of the main actors getting older, unresolved cases might be lost to the younger generation, she warned.
“By constantly reminding the government we are also preventing such cases from being repeated,” she said.
With his case not fully resolved, Munir’s supporters and closest friends have been relentless in reminding the government of their own promises to have the case investigated thoroughly. Some think that the government’s inaction will allow the killing to fade from the public’s memory.
Defending the defenders
Amnesty International says the lack of accountability in Munir’s case contributes to an ongoing climate of fear among human rights defenders. It argues that defenders would be better protected if there was true accountability for the killing.
Despite commitments by the government to provide adequate protection, rights defenders continue to be threatened, intimidated and attacked for their work.
On July 20, dozens of activists from the organization of Solidarity for Victims of Human Rights Violations in Papua, who were raising funds for sick political prisoners, were arrested by police in Jayapura. They were released a few hours later.
Another case occurred on July 13, when police in Maluku charged Oyang Orlando Petrus, a local community activist, with criminal defamation for his criticism of mining in southwest Maluku and its environmental impact.
Oyang had been stabbed by unknown assailants back in April, an attack for which no one has yet been brought to justice.
In May, Tantowi Anwari, an activist from the Association of Journalists for Diversity, was beaten and kicked by members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) in Bekasi while covering the hard-line group’s disruption of the HKBP Filadelfia church service. Despite filing a police report, the case remains open.
Most attacks against human rights defenders in the past, including torture, possible killings and kidnappings, remain unsolved, and those responsible have not been brought to justice, Amnesty said.
“Amnesty International calls on the Indonesian government to take effective steps to ensure that human rights violations committed against human rights defenders are promptly, effectively and impartially investigated and that those responsible are brought to justice in fair trials,” the group said in a statement.
The organization also called on the government to support the passage of specific legislation aimed at providing better legal protection for human rights defenders, as is scheduled in the 2011-2014 National Human Rights Action Plan.
Kontras, which Munir set up in 1998, will also use the momentum to roll out a public awareness campaign on other rights violations that took place in past Septembers.
“We call it Black September, because besides Munir’s death there are other unresolved cases of human rights violations that happened in that month,” Yati said.
She cited the post-referendum upheaval in East Timor in 1999 that left more than 180,000 people dead from fighting, disease and starvation.
Right organizations held Indonesia’s military responsible for that incident.
In an incident in September 1984, the military opened fire on a group of Muslim demonstrators in Tanjung Priok, North Jakarta. The exact death toll from that incident remains unknown, but estimates run in the hundreds.
“There was also the Semanggi II incident and the 1965 [coup],” Yati continued.
Not long after the one-year anniversary of the first Semanggi incident, in 1998, military officers again clashed with students killing at least four.
And last month the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM) concluded that what happened to more than 500,000 people targeted in an anti-communist purge in 1965, and their families, was a severe human rights violation.
Action has yet to take action.
“It seems that there has been a systematic intention from the government to deliberately ‘forget’ past human rights violations,” Yati said.
“This is why we have to keep reminding them, to let them know that we, the people, will never forget.”