Nothing piques your interest in a presidential election than having been abducted by one of the candidates.
This is the predicament of Mugiyanto, an Indonesian pro-democracy activist who was kidnapped and tortured by Indonesian special forces (Kopassus) in 1998 during the final months of the Suharto regime.
General Suharto took power in 1966 on the back of a communist genocide which claimed the lives of an estimated 500,000 civilians. Suharto successfully embezzled $35 billion of state money over his 32 year rule and is rated the world's most corrupt dictator of all time by Transparency International.
Anyway, Suharto may be long gone but his former son-in-law, former Kopassus commander Prabowo Subianto, is one of the frontrunners in this year's presidential race. And more importantly to Mugiyanto, he's the man responsible for his kidnapping along with 22 other pro-democracy activists in 1998. Nine survived, one was found dead, and 13 were never seen again. Prabowo is also suspected of involvement in multiple human rights atrocities in East Timor, something he denies.
During an investigation into the kidnappings which lasted until 2002, Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights tried to interview Prabowo, but he consistently refused to show up. But recently, a senior army official has come forward to say he knows where the missing 13 bodies are, so the case is being reopened. The Human Rights Commission has said that they have to interview Prabaowo this time, but it's unlikely that it will happen before the July 9 election.
In 1998, Mugiyanto had been working with the Indonesian People's Democratic Party (PRD), an organization that had been banned by the government and scapegoated for anti-Suharto riots in 1996. Over the ensuing two years the PRD's leadership were jailed and tortured and its members slowly hunted down by Prabowo's troops and the military police.
Mugiyanto was in Jakarta to meet with other pro-democracy activists to organize protests against the government when he was taken on March 13, 1998. VICE News caught up with him outside the Kopassus headquarters.
VICE: So how did you get caught?
Mugiyanto: I had just come back to our safe house where I was meant to meet the others (fellow rights activists Nezar and Aan). There was a hot drink still sitting out, still hot, so I assumed that they had just left.
I called Nezar’s pager, but got no response. I felt that something could be wrong, so I packed my documents and passport and waited. When I looked out the window I saw the house was suddenly surrounded by men. That's when I thought, I'm going to die.
Where did they take you?
I got packed into a car, told to take off my shirt, and then they blindfolded me with the shirt. Then they put something to my head, and they told me to be careful or I would get “this,” whatever it was, I think it was a gun. But they didn’t interrogate me. It was a long trip. I only heard them debating about the traffic. They were arguing about “we should go this way” or “we should go that way.”
Suddenly the car stopped. I walked only about three or four steps and I felt it was cold, very breezy or windy. And I heard water flowing, and I could hear a whipping sound “tch-taa, tch-taa.” I was thinking, I’m in a rice field, and I’m going to be killed there.
Years later we worked out that it was the Kopassus headquarters that I had been taken to.
They asked me, what is your name and my other details. And from then on whenever they didn’t like my answer they would beat me. My face, my body — they kicked me, and they asked me to stand up again, and then beat me again.
My lips were broken. I managed not to tell them much, but they already knew. This welcome beating went on for about five or ten minutes.
That was just five or ten minutes? What did they do with you the rest of the two days?
They asked me to take off my clothes and shoes so I was wearing only my underpants. And after that they asked me to lay down on my back on a bed, and they tied my hands and feet to the bed. I had no idea where I was, I still sort of thought I was in a rice field somewhere.
And then they continued asking me about my friends. “You know Nezar” they would say. That was also the time that I realized that whip the sound “tch-taa, tch-taa” was not a whip, but electric shocks — because they used it on my leg and on my head.
Then they stopped torturing me and stopped interrogating me, and I heard there was another person there, also being beaten, being electrocuted, shouting, crying and I realized that it was Nezar.
So I thought Oh my God, Nezar is here because I’d paged him when I got home and the pager was already with Kopassus. It turns out Nezar was taken one hour earlier than me.
He was being tortured very severely. And when they stopped torturing him, there was also another person there, crying, shouting and screaming. It was Aan Rusdianto, our other friend. So there were three of us that were the target of this torture, of this interrogation. Three of us separated by about 5 meters between each of us.
What was the worst part of the torture?
The most painful part was not when I was being tortured, because I can express myself, I can express my pain. The most difficult part was when my friend was being tortured, and they start screaming and I had to listen to them. That’s the most painful part.
The hardest part is protecting your friends. Because that’s what we agreed — when we are arrested, we have to protect our friends. But of course there is a point where you cannot stand anymore — so I told them some information where it was necessary, about the party programs, but still protected my comrades.
Why do you think they didn't kill you?
I think the three of us were released because when I was taken from the house there had been many military units involved, and I became like the object of competition. There were different military factions who wanted to keep me to get the credit. And because I was taken to two military offices before being taken to Kopassus. Some activists were taken directly to Kopassus, but not in my case. And because of that many people knew about me being taken, the public knew (the head of the community had been there when he was taken) and so, for their security — so they couldn’t be accused of killing us — we were then handed back to the police. I was very lucky.
Prabowo has admitted being the officer responsible for the operation but denies knowledge of the torture or the killing. Has he apologized for what happened? There has been no expression of regret for what he did in the past. What he said, what he has expressed is his pride for what he did in the past. His pride. For example securing nine of the survivors, me and the other eight. For setting us free. He’s said that these nine activists should thank me. Ha. Fuck you.
Looking at Indonesia now, do you think that it was worth all the shit that you had to go through?
Yeah I think so. I mean, yeah we have changed. We contributed to this change, so yes I think it’s worth it. Something needed to be sacrificed.
Would a Prabowo presidency reverse all that progress?
Yes it would be a setback. Prabowo belongs to the past. Prabowo is a problem of the past. Because the ideas that he brings, is to bring us back — to roll back the democracy and freedom that we have achieved. So for sure, to have Prabowo as the president — I cannot imagine that this kind of person, who is so bloodied, who has such a history, can become the president. He’s at the forefront of those defending his father-in-law Suharto, and can that sort of person be the President of Indonesia 16 years later? No, I don’t think so.