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Will Indonesia Hold Its Military Accountable For a Rural Farmer's Death?

TNI soldiers have been accused of torturing a man to death in Eastern Indonesia. Can investigators actually bring the accused before the courts?

Photo by Tri Saputro/CIFOR/Flickr CC License

How much is a life worth? For La Gode, the answer was about Rp 25,000 ($1.75 USD). The 31-year-old farmer was accused of stealing Rp 25,000 worth of cassava by his neighbor one day in mid-October. He was then detained by a police officer without an arrest warrant and taken to a military post in North Maluku, a remote, sparsely populated province in Eastern Indonesia.

Five days later La Gode returned to his home in Balohang village, on Taliabu Island, badly beaten. He allegedly told his wife that he had been held against his will and tortured for five days at the military post. His entire body was in pain, but it was his chest that hurt the most.


The police returned eight days later, this time with soldiers with the TNI (military), and military-appointed civilian spies (Babinsa) who took La Gode back to their outpost. It was the last time his wife, a 27-year-old woman named Yanti, would see her husband alive.

His body came back covered in bruises. His teeth were broken. His left thumb missing. His face was badly swollen. The soldiers told Yanti that her husband was attacked by a mob seeking revenge for the theft. They then allegedly offered her Rp 1.4 million per month ($103 USD) for nine months plus some food as compensation for her loss. They called it a "peace offering," she told the local press. (TNI officials deny this claim). The money wasn't important, Yanti said. She just wanted her husband back.

“Money and wealth mean nothing," she told local reporters. "It can’t bring him back."

Yanti told reporters that she knew exactly who was responsible for her husband's death. It wasn't an angry mob who killed La Gode, she said. "It’s the military who killed my husband," Yanti told the press.

Military police stationed out of Ternate, another island in the region, are now investigating La Gode's death. M. Sabrar Fadhilah, the head of the TNI's public relations department, promised full transparency in the matter. “We won’t hide anything,” he said.

If the investigation uncovers evidence that La Gode was tortured and killed by Indonesian security forces, it would be the latest in a long string of civilian abuses to occur this year, according to a report by the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS). This year, there were at least 138 instances of violence committed by the TNI targeting civilians. The abuses range from intimidation to outright assault, most of them occurring in North Sumatra, West Java, and Papua.


Some might try to dismiss the allegations of human rights abuses as a symptom of Indonesia's tumultuous history. The TNI fought for decades with separatist militants in Aceh and Maluku provinces and a similar insurgency continues to this day in Papua. In some parts of the country, law enforcement is thin on the ground and control falls in the hands of soldiers. So maybe these abuses are just a sign that some things remain unsettled in Indonesia.

But these abuses aren't slowing down. In fact, according to KontraS, the situation is getting worse. During five months in 2001, there were 193 instances of human rights abuses linked to the military in Aceh province alone. That was at a time when the TNI was fighting a decades-long war with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Fast-forward to 2010-2011 and that figure dropped to 28 cases. There were 86 in 2012. One hundred in 2013. One hundred eight in 2014. Eight-four in 2015. Last year, there were only 24 instances of abuse linked to the Indonesian military, according to KontraS.

That makes this year one of the worst years on record since the end of an actual armed conflict. How did it get so bad? It's a symptom of a legal system that has allowed the military to act with impunity for years, explained Haris Azar, a human rights activist and former coordinator at KontraS.

“The court system tends to give a slap on the wrist [for the perpetrator], so there is not deterrent effect,” Haris told VICE.


The common thread running through many of these allegations of abuse are land conflicts, Haris explained. The price of land has increased by as much as 500 percent in some cities in the last decade. When you have that kind of rise in property value in a country where land ownership is murky at best and subject to multiple overlapping, and often contradicting, deeds, you end up with a rise in land disputes.

And when the military is repeatedly allowed to act with impunity in these cases, instances of abuse rise as well, Haris explained.

Rewind back to Nov. 2010 and remember that four TNI officers who were found guilty for abusing civilians in Papua on video received five-to-seven months in prison. Later, in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, another TNI officer who was found guilty of murdering someone walked out of prison a free man after serving three months. The list goes on and on.

The reason why soldiers tend to receive such light sentences is because Indonesia lacks a truly independent military court system, explained Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher with Human Rights Watch. The same military courts that are tasked with trying crimes committed by soldiers have to report to the same chain of command as the accused sitting on the other side of the bench. This creates a system where the military courts aren't truly independent, Andreas told VICE.

"A prosecutor might not be as independent because they still answer to the suspect's superiors," Andreas told VICE. "Ideally, if we're talking about justice, all perpetrators, irrespective of their status, should be held accountable in court."


Then there's the fact that military trials are incredibly opaque. The trials are rarely open to the public and only a few of the most-violent cases actually reached the courts in the first place. Despite the fact that military reform has been a focus of human rights groups for years, there have been few efforts to actually address the culture of impunity that's been allowed to grow in the ranks of the TNI.

But there's also few signs that anything is going to change anytime soon, Andreas told VICE.

“The Indonesian military isn’t ready to be prosecuted by civilians,” he said. “That’s why, for the longest time, military officers lived as if they were the first-class citizens with full immunity.”

Only time will tell what happens to the soldiers accused in La Gode's death. But regardless of the outcome, his wife will have to live with the fact that her husband's life was measured by the cruelest of calculations. But she won't stop demanding for justice.

"I can't accept that my husband was killed like some animal," she told the local press.