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Airline Probed in Activist's Murder

Indonesian Officials Allege Coverup After Poisoning of Rights Figure

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page A14

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Munir Said Thalib, Indonesia's best-known human rights campaigner, started feeling sick shortly after his overnight flight left for Europe last September. After he made brief layover in Singapore, the pain grew so intense that a doctor on board was roused from his sleep to tend to him. Within hours, somewhere in the night skies above Eastern Europe, Munir died.

About two months after Munir's death on Sept. 6, an autopsy in the Netherlands found that he had ingested 465 milligrams of arsenic, more than triple a lethal dose.


Munir Said Thalib and his wife, Suciwati, at the Jakarta airport. Munir was headed to the Netherlands on Indonesia's state-owned airline when he was given a fatal dose of arsenic. (Courtesy Of Poengky Indarti)

The discovery launched one of the most celebrated murder investigations in Indonesian history, prompting President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to create a special commission to find out who killed Munir and determine whether members of the military, intelligence service and civilian government were involved.

Police officials reported this month that they suspect the arsenic was slipped into a glass of orange juice served to Munir when he was invited to sit in business class on Garuda Indonesia Flight 974. Officials also charged that more than one employee of the airline was involved.

"There are strong indications that Garuda's employees were directly or indirectly involved in Munir's death," said Brig. Gen. Marsudhi Hanafi, head of the special commission. "We found evidence that showed Garuda's officials conspired to cover up the wrongdoing."

Indra Setiawan, president of the state-owned airline, said in an interview that his company has cooperated fully with investigators, blaming human error if there had been any shortcomings in providing accurate information. "We in Garuda are trying the best we can to smooth the way for the investigation by the police and fact-finding team no matter where it goes," he said.

Munir, 38, a short man with wide, brown eyes and a droopy mustache, is remembered for the unassuming, almost apologetic manner that cloaked his fearless determination. He emerged as a prominent human rights activist in the months before the 1998 ouster of Suharto, Indonesia's longtime dictator, forming a group to investigate the disappearance of activists at the hands of security forces. He went on to become a searing critic of the Indonesian military, in particular of alleged abuses in the regions of East Timor, Aceh and Papua.

Besides winning several international awards for his efforts, Munir won the attention of U.S. policymakers. During a visit to Washington three years ago, he met with officials from the State Department, Defense Department and National Security Council as well as Capitol Hill staffers.

But his overseas trips had always been brief until he decided last year to enroll in a master's degree program at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He had planned to complete the first year, then bring his wife and two children to join him while pursuing a doctorate in international law and human rights.

Colleagues recalled that Munir, usually aloof, turned sentimental at the prospect of being away from home for such a long time, insisting in the days before he left the country that they pose together for photographs. At the airport in Jakarta, he was tearful as he said goodbye to his wife, Suciwati, she recounted.

"It is the only time I ever saw him cry," she said.

Munir had lived for years with death threats, his colleagues said, including a string of letters, phone calls and text messages. A small bomb was tossed into the garden of his Jakarta home two years ago.

"He knew he was under threat all the time and could be killed almost anywhere, morning or night," recalled Usman Hamid, coordinator of Kontras, the human rights organization that Munir founded. "But he never imagined he would be killed on a Garuda flight."

As Munir was preparing to board the flight to Amsterdam, he encountered Pollycarpus Budihari Priyatno, an off-duty pilot with the airline. Pollycarpus invited him to move from economy to business class, according to investigators and an interview with him.


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