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After justice

Inside Indonesia - October-December, 2013

Jacqui Baker On 3 March of this year, in a Tangerang courtroom, a young warung (food stall) owner named Yeni raised her skinny fist in victory. Three police officers were convicted of the murder of her brother, Yusli bin Durahman.

Yusli had been abducted from their family home in Rumpin by the three officers, who suspected him of stealing a motorbike. He was taken to a government complex at night, tied to the back of a police car and dragged across the bitumen. His ribs were broken. His heart was ripped from its arterial moorings. Finally, he was shot in the chest, presumably at close range given the exit wound in his back. The officers responsible claimed that Yusli had tried to snatch their weapon and pleaded self-defence. With no legal counsel, no money and having never graduated from primary school, Yeni fought and won the battle to bring her brother's killers to trial. The victory came within a legal system deeply unwilling to prosecute one of its own.

But the five-month trial was a bewildering experience for Yeni. Although the public prosecutor was supposed to work in Yusli's interests, it wasn't always clear whose side he was on. Yeni didn't find out the charges he'd pressed until the final verdict because the prosecutor said that they were a secret between him and the accused. Court sessions were held, cancelled or moved without Yeni being notified. One key witness from the University of Indonesia argued that evidence showed Yusli's death was a planned execution. But most others, including the forensic pathologist, failed to turn up at all. They pleaded family illness or out-of-town travel. The testimonies of the accused blamed each other and were riddled with inconsistencies which neither the prosecutor nor the presiding judge followed up.

Then there was the expense. Having to close the warung; lost income; and the long hours spent travelling to and from the Tangerang courtroom on Rumpin's broken roads. There were other unexpected costs too. In the trial, it seemed that courtroom showmanship was often more important than evidence to prove Yusli's good character. On advice from her supporters, Yeni exhausted the family savings hiring the minibuses needed to transport neighbours and family from Rumpin to the trial. On the courthouse steps, the rabble of journalists stationed there said they weren't interested in her case unless she made a scene. Was this a trial, she wondered, or a show of force? So when the judge found the men guilty of manslaughter and torture, and handed down five-year and two-year sentences for the respective crimes, it felt like a triumph of justice. I made a documentary about Yeni for ABC Radio National. People always told me they cried when they heard about her improbable win. Surrounded by her mourning family and her warung customers, Yeni stood and shouted to the court: 'Victims, we will never be silent! We will fight!'

In response, the courtroom exploded into a frenzy of shrieks and jeers. 'You're a family of motorcycle thieves!' the police chanted. 'Murderers!' Yeni's supporters screamed back.

The ghost of Petrus past

Though Yeni's story is unique, that of her brother Yusli is not. Yusli's torture and killing is just another case of state-sponsored violence against a citizen regarded as 'criminal'. This kind of violence peaked in 1983 with the Petrus shootings, when thousands of alleged criminals were executed by the state in an organised campaign of 'criminal cleansing'. Such killings became less frequent after 1985, but the reign of state terror over the lower class continues. Poor young men who have been accused of petty crimes are picked up by the police and then tortured and killed. The men are sometimes convicted criminals. But most have never been tried, and have simply come to the attention of the police as possible suspects.

The police come for a suspect after midnight, usually in groups of three or four. They do not wear their khaki uniforms. They grab him, beat him and bundle him into an unmarked car. Inside they kick him and burn him with cigarettes. They drive him around and around, sometimes for hours. 'Eighty-six', they say, 'how about an 86'? Eighty-six is a euphemism for paying a bribe to escape or minimise the charge. 'Let's cut a deal', they say. But he has no money. 'Do you know any other criminals?' they ask, 'Someone with money?' But he doesn't know anyone except other retched street urchins like him, who subsist in the cracks of the labour market. So they beat a confession out of him. He begs and weeps but they do not listen. Sometimes they shoot him in the legs to teach him a lesson. Sometimes, like Yusli, they beat him so severely they have to shoot him dead and say that he tried to run.

The prevalence of torture is notoriously difficult to measure. Two surveys of prison inmates by the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation's (YLBHI) Jakarta office and Jakarta Community Legal Aid (LBHM) indicate that over 80 per cent of convicted offenders have been subject to police torture during the arrest and detention period. The number of inmates claiming to have suffered direct physical violence comes to over 75 per cent. Figures of torture are even higher if instances of non-physical and sexual violence are included. Humiliating and degrading treatment often hurts victims the most.

Gathering these kinds of stories takes time and trust, both of which are difficult to obtain in survey-based research. I interviewed a young gay man who shook and wept when he spoke of the humiliation of being urinated on and forced to perform crude sexual acts. Other victims I met did not suffer direct physical abuse at all. One man recounted how his ailing mother was detained in a police station for the days leading up to a medical operation until he confessed to murder.

There is even less reliable data on extrajudicial executions. In 2011, Indonesian Police Watch (IPW) found that 18 people had been unlawfully shot dead over the course of the year. But they only considered a shooting 'unlawful' if a person was shot indiscriminately during public unrest or if a suspect shot in the course of arrest was considered to be 'innocent'. IPW based their assessment of the latter on community opinion. Only if a community protested the police's version of events with good reason was the shooting considered illegitimate.

Absent from this list, therefore, was the near daily death toll of criminal suspects shot during the course of arrest. These shootings are often reported in the media in glowing terms. In these reports, the police claim the shootings to be lawful and in accordance with procedure. Shooting a criminal is considered acceptable if the suspect was armed, attacked an officer, tried to grab his weapon or tried to run away. The shooting does not have to be justified to police oversight bodies. There is no independent police complaints board to listen to victims and their families. Journalists told me they were scared to question the official version of events.

Besides which, the public seems to like the tough stance on crime. When I asked the head of YLBHI, Alvon Palma, why he didn't take a high profile approach to the problem of police shootings, he explained that with the institution's limited resources, it was important to take on cases that would elicit empathy from the public. The fate of the police's criminal suspects apparently does not.

I have kept a cursory count of police shootings every year since 2008, based on online newspaper reports, mainly from Indonesia's districts. I log about 500 shooting incidents per year. Shooting reports tend to be of two kinds: reports where the suspect was shot in the legs, or shot dead. In April 2011, 24 suspected criminals were shot in the legs during their arrest. On top of that I counted 16 fatal shootings. This was in just one month of 2011, the year IPW reported eighteen deaths in total. Of course, these numbers are problematic. Few of the newspapers representing Indonesia's 34 provinces and 500-odd districts are online. And the reports of police shootings do not include the men who are injured by police but do not die immediately.

Ping-pong justice

After years of stockpiling reports of unprosecuted police shootings I wanted Yeni's story to end in that noisy courtroom, with a guilty verdict. But justice in Indonesia is not served simply with the knock of a gavel. Yeni's problems after the trial started with small procedural snubs. The court would not give her a copy of the verdict and sent her to the prosecutor's office. The prosecutor protested that he did not have it and sent her scurrying back. Yeni calls this tactic 'ping-pong'. Eventually, she settled for the prosecutor's minutes as evidence of her victory. Then there was the problem of the police internal ethics unit. Yeni lodged a complaint with them two years ago, hoping for the officers' dismissal. But despite promises, no hearing has ever eventuated.

Seven months had passed since the guilty verdict in that Tangerang court. Despite Yeni's weekly visits, the prosecutor said the date for the appeal remained undecided. Then she discovered by chance that the appeal hearing had already taken place. She requested a copy of the verdict from the court but they sent her back to the prosecutor's office, where she waited four hours to see a prosecutor. He said he couldn't find her file and the prosecutor who worked on the case has been transferred to another province. Frustrated, Yeni found herself back at the district police station where she initially fought for her case to be investigated. Then she saw one of the convicted officers in full police uniform, going about his daily job.

Back in Rumpin, Yeni's warung sits shut. These past weeks she has been back on the job of fighting for justice for Yusli. Every day she ping-pongs between the courts and the prosecutor, since neither institution will admit that the appeal has been heard. Last week, staff from the Asian Human Rights Commission found the appeal decisions for the three officers after searching on Google. As part of a transparency drive back in 2007, the Supreme Court pledged to upload court documents online. But ordinary people like Yeni don't know how to use computers so she never knew that the records were there all along. I felt embarrassed at my Canberra kitchen table as I opened up the file and read it aloud over Skype to Yeni. On appeal the judge had reduced the sentence of each of the convicted officers, and found all the officers not guilty of the more serious charges of torture. The presiding judge noted that the officers were only doing their job. The public prosecutor didn't even turn up.

Yeni sobbed as we talked. For the marginalised within Indonesian society, justice is hard to win. It's even harder to keep.

[Jacqui Baker (jacqueline.baker@anu.edu.au) is a visiting fellow and a lecturer in Indonesian Politics at the Department for Political and Social Change at the ANU. Yeni's story was told as part of an ABC Radio National 360 Documentaries collaboration with Siobhan McHugh and can be heard at Eat, Pray, Mourn; Radio National, ABC. Asian Human Rights Watch has launched an urgent appeal for Yusli's case. You can read about it and submit an online letter to the Indonesian authorities: http://www.humanrights.asia/news/urgent-appeals/AHRC-UAU-028-2013.]

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