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Anger mounts toward police as Indonesia reels from stadium tragedy

Arema FC players and local officials pay respects on Oct. 3 to victims of a stampede at a soccer match in Malang, Indonesia. (Mast Irham/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
6 min

MEDAN, Indonesia — As hospitals and mosques in Malang, Indonesia, work to identify victims of Saturday’s stadium stampede, anger is mounting toward police and the role they played in the deadly disaster.

On Saturday night, after the final whistle at a soccer match at the Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, fans from the losing team, Arema FC, leaped over barriers and entered the field, prompting security personnel to beat them back. Officers in military fatigues were seen kicking and hitting fans with batons. Riot police in helmets and shields eventually fired canisters of tear gas in the direction of tightly packed stands, fueling mass panic.

Families of the victims as well as human rights activists maintain that the police decision to fire tear gas into the densely packed stands caused the deadly stampede. FIFA, the worldwide soccer body, has banned the use of tear gas in stadiums for this reason.

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As of Monday morning, local health officials said at least 125 people, including at least 17 children, were killed while trying to escape through the stadium’s narrow exits, some of which were closed, according to survivors. An additional 44 spectators were injured.

Nico Afinta, the police chief in East Java, where Malang is located, said officers used tear gas because “there was anarchy” and because Arema supporters “were about to attack the officers.” But witness testimonies, along with videos from the event that have been widely shared among Indonesian users on social media, dispute his account.

The police department’s narrative has made relatives of those who died in the stampede feel “re-victimized,” said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International’s Indonesia office.

“First, their family members died. Now police is trying to blame their loved ones for it,” said Hamid, adding that Amnesty has received dozens of messages from angry, grieving families.

Hundreds gathered for vigils and protests Sunday night in Malang, many of them calling for the government to launch an independent investigation into what happened. At the Kanjuruhan Stadium, littered with shoes, bottles and other debris from the stampede, local officials and soccer players arrived Monday to find graffiti on the walls disparaging the police.

“Evil police,” one wall read. “You killed my brother.”

Yandi Hartantyo, 45, a radio journalist who was sitting in the stadium’s media box when officers began to fire tear gas, said “the biggest question that everyone has is why?”

“I cannot understand why tear gas was being fired at the spectators in the stands,” he continued. “I have no idea why they did this.”

Mohammad Mahfud Mahmodin, Indonesia’s chief security officer, said Monday that he will launch an independent inquiry, investigating whether laws were broken in the post-match commotion and what measures can be taken to prevent similar disasters. The inquiry will be led by “officials or representatives of the relevant ministries, professional soccer organizations, experts, academics and mass media,” he said, and last about two weeks.

Mahfud also announced that the government would be paying compensation to families of those who died at Kanjuruhan without specifying the amount.

Hamid, the Amnesty director, said he welcomed the inquiry but thinks its credibility will hinge on who is allowed to participate, as well as the mandate that investigators will have.

“What has been done by the police … has to be under strict and strong scrutiny,” he said.

Listyo Sigit Prabowo, chief of the Indonesian National Police, did not respond to requests for comment.

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Jacqui Baker, a lecturer at Australia’s Murdoch University who studies policing in Southeast Asia, said that based on what she has learned about what happened at Kanjuruhan, police overreacted to the post-match commotion. This was not a situation that warranted the use of tear gas, she added.

“This is not to dismiss the serious threats [the police] may have faced,” Baker said, noting that there were two officers among the dead. “But this should not have been an unfamiliar situation for the police, and they should have been prepared.”

Baker said there appears to have been a range of security forces at the stadium, including the local Malang police, members of the Indonesian military and the Mobile Brigade Corps — also known as Brimob — a paramilitary wing of the Indonesian National Police that has often been accused of using excessive force.

“There are a lot of different parties here with blood on their hands,” Baker said.

Ranto Sibarani, a Medan-based human rights lawyer, agreed with Baker, adding that police could have used other dispersal technique like water cannons before resorting to chemical agents. While it’s not unusual for the police and the military to work together at big events, he said, the agencies need to be clear about their roles and protocols beforehand.

“We need a serious investigation into why tear gas was used,” Sibarani said. “Who gave the order, and why did they do it?”

The Indonesian National Police has struggled for decades to rid itself of allegations of corruption and brutality.

In recent months, the force has come under intense scrutiny following the killing of a 28-year-old officer, Nopryansyah Yosua Hutabarat, who worked as the bodyguard and driver of Inspector General Ferdy Sambo, head of internal affairs for the force and a two-star general.

Hutabarat, also known as known as Brigadier J, was found dead at Sambo’s home in Jakarta in July. The general was arrested as a suspect following weeks of fevered speculation, and more than 80 officers from different branches of the police have since been questioned about their involvement in covering up the incident. Sambo was dishonorably discharged in September for his part in the scandal, which is now widely considered one of the worst cases of police corruption in Indonesia’s history.

Like the Brigadier J scandal, the incident at Kanjuruhan Stadium is “another nail in the coffin of the failure of police reform in Indonesia,” said Baker, the Australian scholar.

“In the absence of police reform,” she continued, Indonesia has “a broken police force.”

Tan reported from Singapore. Winda Charmila in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Adi Renaldi in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.