Executing Tibo solves nothing

Dave McRae, Jakarta

Barring a last minute reprieve, Tibo, Dominggus and Marinus will be executed this Thursday. The three Catholic men have now been on death row for five years, after being sentenced to death in 2001 for inciting others to commit murder during the communal conflict in Poso.

Although their deaths now appear imminent, the case for executing the men does not stand up to scrutiny and the facts of their case remain poorly understood. Executing the men is unlikely to lead to renewed open conflict in Poso, but it will solve nothing.

One of the key arguments in favor of the executions has been that it is necessary to respect the final decision of the courts and the punishments set out under the Indonesian legal system. In fact, even putting aside the well-documented irregularities in the conduct of the trial, the court's judgment does not bear close inspection. The judges -- two Muslims and a Christian -- did not always make it clear what items of evidence supported the conviction or how they concluded the men were guilty. When they did cite particular witness testimony, it was the testimony of a young Muslim man called Anton, the least credible witness at the trial.

Anton provided a very detailed account of Tibo, Dominggus and Marinus's alleged role in training other Christians to fight, but he also made the implausible claim that Christians took delivery of 727 factory standard firearms. The judges tacitly acknowledged his claims about the guns were false, but did not feel this discredited the remainder of his testimony.

In any case, the basis for the murder conviction is often misunderstood by supporters and opponents of the execution alike. The prosecution did not present any witness who saw the men perpetrate a murder. The judges found the Tibo, Dominggus and Marinus guilty because they believed that the three men had been proven to be among the leaders of Christians forces during fighting in May-June 2000 and had incited others to kill. As a result, whether or not the men were leaders became the crucial point in convicting them, rather than their presence at any specific violent incident.

Contrary to a common misconception that the case against each man is identical, the evidence presented at the trial to prove each man was a leader varied markedly. Both Tibo and Dominggus appear to have been more than rank-and-file combatants, though not the highest leaders of Christian forces. Each also acknowledged the veracity of their interrogation depositions, of which Tibo's in particular contained incriminating, if inconsistent, information.

The case presented in the trial against Marinus was very weak. Apart from the testimony of Anton, who said Marinus had instructed other Christians in the use of arrows, Marinus was hardly mentioned during the trial. Despite these differences, the judges in the three men's trial (they were tried together) did little to treat the men's cases individually.

Even if Tibo and Dominggus were more than rank-and-file combatants, their death sentence is excessive, and highly unusual in Poso. Although at least 150 people have stood trial in connection with a conflict that has persisted for eight years and in which at least 500 people have been killed, no one else has received a sentence longer than fifteen years.

Most sentences -- for both Muslims and Christians -- have been five years or less, even for murder or the equivalent offense under the terrorism law. And despite the relatively high number of trials, a striking number of cases of violence directed at both religious communities have never been satisfactorily investigated.

Some argue that executing the men is a way of showing respect for the victims of violence in Poso and their families. This sets a poor precedent: that death is the only appropriate response to violence. This could have consequences for the Muslim men suspected of perpetrating the October 2005 beheading of three schoolgirls and the May 2005 bombing of the Christian town Tentena, which killed 23.

In the Tibo case, protests in Poso itself for and against executing the three men have largely been polarized along religious lines, aggravating old enmities from the conflict. If the executions do go ahead, it could start a cycle of public demands for the death penalty, again playing upon the same religious enmities.

Nor should it be thought that executing Tibo, Dominggus and Marinus will address demands from Poso's Muslim community for justice. Demands will rightly continue for other unsolved cases to be investigated, and those implicated in violence to be brought to trial.

Two particular incidents that Muslims see as symbolic of injustice are the May 2000 Walisongo massacre -- in which around 100 Muslims were killed -- and July 2001 Buyung Katedo killings -- in which fourteen Muslims were murdered. The way to satisfy demands for justice is to systematically investigate unsolved cases, including these two incidents, not to use executions as a band-aid solution.

The choice is not simply between executing the men or not punishing them at all, as some DPR members have suggested. The best course of action now would be to commute the three men's sentences to life imprisonment.

This is what President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono should have done when Tibo, Dominggus and Marinus first submitted their plea for clemency in April 2005. In so doing he would have prevented the men's case becoming such a focal point for protests. He still has one last chance to prevent three more deaths being added to the Poso conflict.

The writer is a specialist on the Poso conflict at the Australian National University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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