Indonesian court acquits pilot of murdering human rights activist

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Thursday October 5, 2006

Jakarta- Indonesia's Supreme Court has overturned the guilty verdict of an airline pilot convicted of murdering a prominent human rights activist who was poisoned while on a flight two years ago, local media reports said Thursday. In a surprise ruling, the court said that Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, 45, of Garuda Indonesia, the country's national flag carrier, was not guilty of murdering Munir Said Thalib, the co-founder of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence.

The ruling, handed down on Tuesday and announced on Wednesday, will likely be seen as a setback in reforming Indonesia's corrupt judiciary, as well as the country's move toward democracy, as senior members of the country's shadowy State Intelligence Agency (BIN) were implicated in the murder.

Reformist Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had promised a transparent investigation into the high-profile case but police have yet to question a single senior suspect.

Presiding judge Iskandar Kamil said the three-member panel of judges ruled 2 to 1 that Pollycarpus only falsified a document relating to the murder, and sentenced him to two years in prison.

"The primary charge of premeditated murder was not proven. No witnesses saw him plot the murder," the state-run Antara quoted Kamil as saying.

Last December, the Central Jakarta District Court sentenced Pollycarpus to 14 years in prison for his role in killing of Munir while on a flight to Amsterdam in September 2004. An autopsy preformed in Holland showed the human rights campaigner had lethal levels of arsenic in his body.

Pollycarpus was also found guilty of forging a letter that authorized him to travel to Singapore on the same flight as Munir as an aviation security officer.

The lower court also stated that Pollycarpus had frequently discussed the murder plot via cellular phone with Muchdi Purwopranjono, former deputy chief of the spy agency.

Muchdi admitted to owning the phone but he told the court when testifying as a witness that he was not the only person using the phone.

Throughout the hearings at the lower court, Pollycarpus had strongly denied any wrongdoing.

Munir was a vocal critic of Indonesia's armed forces, which committed gross human rights abuses including mass murder, torture and rape during the 32-year rule of authoritarian president Suharto. Security forces in particular targeted human rights groups and activists.

An investigation by a president-appointed fact-finding team concluded that individuals from the country's spy agency, including former chief Hendropriyono, had orchestrated the murder.

During the lower court trial, prosecutors alleged someone slipped arsenic into orange juice served to Munir after he boarded the Garuda Indonesia flight to Singapore, the first leg of the journey to Amsterdam.

Munir's case has grabbed international attention and expressions of concern. During the Asia-Europe Union meeting in Finland last month, Yudhoyono was pressed by other leaders into promising the investigation was moving forward.

The activist's family, however, has accused authorities of a cover up.

"I'm disappointed," Tempo newspaper quoted Munir's widow, Suciwati, as saying, adding that the ruling was a slap in the face to all Indonesians seeking justice for human rights abuses.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency