Indonesia Murder Trial: Widow, Public And International Observers Protest Acquittal Of Former Official

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Defying what analysts had called an opportunity to demonstrate reform, a Jakarta court on Wednesday acquitted a former intelligence official of any connection to the murder of Indonesia's most-celebrated human rights activist.

Munir Said Thalib was poisoned while flying to the Netherlands aboard the state-carrier Garuda in 2004. Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, an off-duty Garuda pilot who jockeyed to sit next to Munir during the flight, has already been sentenced to 20 years for the murder. The director of Garuda at the time, Budi Setiawan, also went to jail for his involvement.

It was Muchdi Purwoprandjono, however, who prosecutors had long hoped to convict. Lawyers believed the former deputy intelligence chief ordered the murder as a retaliation for Munir's investigation into the disappearance of pro-democracy activists in 1998. Muchdi, at the time an Army major general, had been transferred out of the Army's special forces unit after only about two months as the unit's commander, because of his complicity in the kidnappings.

The five-month Muchdi trial was seen by many international observers as a test of how far Indonesia had come in reforming its justice system. Those who make U.S. policy had their eyes trained on the courtroom: Congress has said it would withhold several million dollars in development aid until Muchdi's conviction.

Domestically the trial was viewed as a test for Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who swept to power four years ago on promises of reform and clean governance. He is up for re-election next year.

The Indonesian public has long assumed Muchdi guilty and on Wednesday marched to the presidential palace in protest, according to local media reports. Several hundred people gathered outside the palace gates demanding Indonesia's president make good on promises he made four years ago to resolve the Munir case.

If Muchdi had been convicted, he would have been the first senior military or intelligence official to go to jail for past crimes. No senior official, for instance, has ever been convicted of playing a role in political kidnappings during the era of Suharto, Indonesia's longtime authoritarian ruler, or for human rights abuses in the restive provinces of Aceh, Papua or the now-independent East Timor.

Analysts said the trial had been an opportunity for Indonesia to prove it had made real strides in reforming its justice system, but instead it became just another example of the impunity enjoyed by high level officials and the lack of transparency within the courts.

"This has been a devastating result," said Usman Hamid, director of the human rights group Kontras, which Munir originally founded. "There were all kinds of irregularities, pressure and coercion. There were always people occupying the courtroom creating a fearful atmosphere for the judges. Even police personnel and prosecutors responsible for this case have told us they were threatened."

Muchdi, confident of eventually being freed, taunted the prosecution, often smiling and laughing during the trial and saying publically that he would not be convicted.

During the investigations into Pollycarpus, police found phone records proving the Garuda pilot and Muchdi had communicated more than two dozen times leading up to the murder. Prosecutors had also hoped an internal letter signed by Muchdi would further bolster their case.

Judges, however, refused to allow such key documents to be used for reasons never made clear. Furthermore, several witnesses casually contradicted statements they originally made to police, withdrew statements altogether, or simply failed to appear in court. These were serious setbacks for prosecutors after judges refused to allow original testimonies to be used in court.

"Notwithstanding the orchestrated and very likely coerced retractions of witness statements, the prosecution has presented strong evidence," said Matt Easton, an analyst with Human Rights First. "The court should simply weigh the evidence and come to an independent verdict."

Munir's widow, Suciwati, was visibly distressed after the verdict Wednesday. She had campaigned vigorously to have the officials jailed for ordering the murder and has more than once suggested the order came from even higher up than Muchdi.

She noted that several high-profile corruption suspects have gone free after rulings by one of the judges, including Tommy Suharto, son of the late president, who was accused of embezzling millions.

"I have not only lost a husband," she told reporters after the verdict. "But also an understanding of justice."

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