Indonesian human rights activist who died on flight was poisoned with arsenic

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The Independent Online

A leading Indonesian human rights campaigner who died mysteriously in September was poisoned, it emerged yesterday.

A leading Indonesian human rights campaigner who died mysteriously in September was poisoned, it emerged yesterday.

Munir suddenly fell ill on a flight from Singapore to Amsterdam two months ago, and died before the plane could land. The Amsterdam prosecutor's office said yesterday that Dutch forensic investigators had found traces of arsenic in his blood.

It is news that will send a chill through Indonesia, where people had hoped the days of political killings were over. Although the autopsy did not say Munir was deliberately poisoned, there is little doubt its findings point in that direction. Munir had already survived a firebombing attack on his house last year.

A human rights lawyer, he was one of the leading campaigners against the abuses committed under the regime of Indonesia's former dictator, Suharto. He once said he had lost count of the number of death threats he had received.

Munir first came to prominence in the final days of the Suharto regime, when he exposed the disappearances of many other activists. He was a leading member of the Kontras human rights group, and was involved in publicising human rights abuses in East Timor, which later led to its bloody secession from Indonesia.

More recently he has been leading a campaign to bring to justice those behind a spate of kidnappings in 1998 in which anti-Suharto activists were tortured. Lawyers have so far managed to keep Suharto out of court, claiming he is too ill to face prosecution.

Munir was also prominent among those accusing the military, which has remained powerful since the end of the Suharto regime, of human rights abuses in the restive provinces of Aceh and Papua. Dozens have been detained in Aceh for alleged links to separatists, and in 2001 a special forces squad assassinated Theys Eluay, a vocal supporter of Papuan independence.

Many people in Indonesia had murky pasts and presents and so had good reason to want Munir silenced. By a bitter irony, Munir died on the day the Indonesian parliament voted to set up a truth and reconciliation commission, to investigate killings and abductions during Suharto's rule. Now it appears Munir may himself have been the victim of the sort of killing he spent so long exposing.

He fell ill on a flight to Amsterdam with the Indonesian airline Garuda, on 7 September. He complained of feeling unwell in Singapore and began vomiting violently on the second leg of the flight to Europe. Despite the help of a doctor on board, he died before the flight could land, and was reportedly in agony during his last moments.

Although the 38-year-old's death was sudden, until the autopsy results were released it was assumed he had suffered a recurrence of an illness for which he had been in hospital for a month last year. Dutch prosecutors said they did not have the jurisdiction to launch a criminal investigation, and that they had passed the findings of the autopsy to the Indonesian authorities. In Jakarta, Indonesia's police chief, General Da'i Bachtiar, said a police team would fly to the Netherlands to investigate the findings.

"We will go after whoever is guilty of this crime," said Munir's wife, Suciwati, with tears in her eyes. "They must be prosecuted even if they are military generals." But police refused to release a copy of the autopsy results to Suciwati, who said she would give permission for her husband's body to be exhumed if it would help find those responsible for his death.

Munir had spoken of unidentified assailants throwing grenades at his office in Jakarta. Last year a bomb exploded on the verandah of his house, but he survived unharmed.

He was awarded several international prizes in recognition of his human rights campaigning, including the Right Livelihood Award. He was on his way to the Netherlands to study for a master's degree using a scholarship from the Dutch government when he died.

A London-based Indonesian human rights group, Tapol, called on Indonesia's government to "order a thorough investigation to discover the perpetrator or perpetrators of this wicked crime" and demanded that the attorney general, Abdurrahman Saleh, "bring criminal charges against the suspects without delay".