Opinion

Munir and the protection
of rights defenders

For more than four years, no case has been more central to the security of human rights defenders in Indonesia than the 2004 poisoning of Munir Said Thalib. However, that case is now at risk of collapse following the acquittal of a former senior intelligence official, Muchdi Purwopranjono. The unsolved murder dramatically underscores the need for better protection of human rights activists.

In June 2008, Indonesian police detained Muchdi Pr, charging him with the premeditated murder of Munir. On Dec. 31, 2008, Muchdi Pr was acquitted on all charges following a trial marked by the systematic retraction of prior sworn statements by key witnesses and by the presence of organized groups seeking to influence the trial. The acquittal is under appeal to the Supreme Court.

The murder of Munir is just one stark example of the need for better of protection for human rights activists. Many more human rights defenders have been subjected to threats, intimidation and violence, which has in some cases been fatal.

Not only those activists who work on civil and political rights are at risk, but also those who work on economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as environmental issues. Women human rights defenders are often the target of threats and intimidation from religious groups or other non-state actors.

The environmental organization WALHI has documented more than 80 cases in which the legitimate work of activists and poor farmers was criminalized, including in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, North Sumatra, Banda Aceh and West Nusa Tenggara in 2008 alone. Just a few days ago, two of WALHI's leaders were arrested at a peaceful forum held as an alternative to the World Ocean Conference in North Sulawesi.

Another example is Papua, where human rights activists and local politicians speaking out for the rights of Papuans face threats and intimidation. Shortly after the visit of Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Hina Jilani in June 2007, Albert Rumbekwan, head of the regional office of the National Human Rights Commission, received numerous threats via text messages.

Opinus Tabuni, a member of the Papuan Indigenous Council (DAP), a representative cultural organization, was reportedly shot by security forces at a celebration of World Indigenous Peoples' Day in August 2008. No one has been prosecuted for his murder.

Clearly, Indonesia has some distance to go in ensuring protection for human rights workers. There are at least three relevant mechanisms in the national legal and institutional framework to deal with these cases: the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), the Human Rights Court, and the Constitutional Court.

Human rights activists use Komnas HAM for a broad range of human rights issues by filing individual complaints and pushing for legal and policy reform or changes in state practices. To make defenders themselves safer in the long term, the body could propose new laws or amendments. To better respond to the immediate threats faced by defenders, some human rights organizations are currently lobbying Komnas HAM to set up a taskforce on defender protection.

The Human Rights Courts were created by a 2000 law to deal with major human rights violations that occurred after that time. The Court has the authority to handle only "gross violations" of human rights, in the form of crimes against humanity or genocide (but not war crimes or lesser violations), and has been unable or unwilling to provide justice to the victims in most of the cases put before them.

As for the ad hoc courts created to deal with cases from before the 2000 law was passed, an impasse between the Komnas HAM, the parliament, and prosecutors has allowed total impunity for such cases as the disappearances and shootings of student activists in the late 1990s.

The Constitutional Court has made a contribution to the protection of human rights defenders. In December 2007, the Court issued a decision scrapping three articles of the Criminal Code that made it a crime to insult the head of state. The articles were frequently used during the regime of Soeharto to silence political dissent, and were still being used into the reform era to charge and imprison student activists. However, a number of related articles still remain on the books.

The three mechanisms have been helpful, but they clearly need to be strengthened.

First, Komnas HAM can still be a key player in protecting human rights defenders and the recently appointed commissioners should be encouraged to take concrete steps, such as the creation of a specific task force to deal with defender protection.

Second, the Human Rights Courts should be strengthened by expanding their jurisdiction while building up their regional offices and overall capacity.

Thirdly, Indonesia's Constitutional Court should be consulted more often on defenders' constitutional rights and the draconian legal measures remaining on the books

Human rights activists should make full use of the judicial review process. Apart from these mechanisms, social protection of defenders often proves to be as important as legal protection. Therefore, it is crucial to broaden understanding about who and what human rights defenders actually do to the general public.

Usman Hamid is the director of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS) Matt Easton is the director of the human rights defenders program at Human Rights First (HRF)

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