The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tear gas use by Indonesian police questioned in wake of mass fatality soccer tragedy

Football club supporters carry candles during a vigil at the Jatidiri Stadium, after a riot and stampede following a soccer match between Arema and Persebaya, in Indonesia, on Oct. 2. (Antara Foto/Aji Styawan/Reuters)

After at least 125 were killed during a stampede following clashes between fans and security forces at a soccer game in Indonesia on Saturday, rights groups are raising alarms over the use of tear gas at the event — urging a thorough investigation and reassessment of crowd control policies.

The game ended with the home team Arema FC losing 3-2 to Persebaya Surabaya, and soccer fans from an audience of an estimated 42,000 rushed onto the field. The massive crowd was met by uniformed officers who carried batons and riot shields. Witnesses told The Washington Post that security personnel fired tear gas directly and indiscriminately into the crowd of people.

In a panic, tens of thousands ran for the exit, fatally trampling fallen people. East Java Police Chief Nico Afinta at a press briefing said people died of breathing problems and suffocation in attempts to exit the stadium. He confirmed that officers used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

The firing of tear gas at crowded stadiums has caused mass casualties and deaths in the past by funneling crowds of fleeing people toward narrow exits. Guidelines set by FIFA — the international governing body for soccer — specifically exclude the use of “crowd control gas.”

Groups across Indonesia, including soccer fans, held vigils. They lit candles, chanted, cried and held up soccer team scarves to commemorate the lives lost.

Rights groups and authorities are calling for investigations.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo in a video statement said he hopes this is “the last tragedy of football in Indonesia.”

He ordered three leaders — of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the Football Association of Indonesia and the national police — to evaluate the soccer match and its security procedures. He asked the national police chief to “thoroughly investigate” the case.

He suspended the League 1 until the evaluation has been carried out.

“We must not allow football competition to become a human killing machine,” parliament member Luqman Hakim tweeted.

Amnesty International Indonesia Executive Director Usman Hamid in a statement called on authorities to conduct a swift and independent investigation into the use of tear gas at the stadium and “ensure that those who are found to have committed violations are tried in open court and do not merely receive internal or administrative sanctions.”

Hamid also called on the police to review their policies on tear gas, as well as “other ‘less-lethal weapons,’” to ensure such a tragedy doesn’t repeat itself, he said.

Stampede at Indonesia soccer game kills 125, officials say

“No one should lose their lives at a football match,” Hamid said.

Tear gas “should only be used to disperse crowds when widespread violence has occurred and when other methods have failed,” Hamid said, adding that people should be warned and allowed to disperse, and that tear gas shouldn’t be fired in confined spaces.

Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA called it “a tragedy beyond comprehension.” Flags flew at half-staff at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich.

Daniel Alexander Siagian, coordinator of the Malang branch of the Surabaya Legal Aid Institute, questioned why military members were apparently present at the arena and told The Post that authorities “didn’t follow a clear procedure.”

Deaths in Indonesia are latest tragedies in soccer history

Soccer games have been deadly in the past.

In Ghana in 2001, over 120 fans died in a very similar situation: Police fired tear gas, which triggered a panicked exit. The stadium gates were reportedly locked, too.

More than 300 fans were killed at a 1964 Olympic qualifying match in Peru, when fans storming the field set off a police response and riot. Police threw tear gas canisters into the crowd, and some fans were shot outside the stadium.

In Russia in 1982, over 60 Russian fans were killed after police channeled them through a single stadium corridor, jamming and crushing people in the small space as some ran back to watch a late goal.

Cindy Boren, Aisyah Llewellyn, Adi Renaldi, Rebecca Tan and Bryan Pietsch contributed reporting.