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Remembering Munir…

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munir_4th_anniversary.jpgThere is an old adage that says "those who are brave enough to speak out in the face of death inspire the courage of others." This is how Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) remembers its former Chairperson, Munir Said Thalid in the commemoration of his fourth death anniversary as it joins hands in solidarity with his family, friends and colleagues in the human rights community in Asia and in other continents in the pursuit for justice against all forms of human rights abuses and impunity.

In its third book entitled, "Reclaiming Stolen Lives" launched on 29 August 2008, the eve of International Day of the Disappeared, AFAD revisited Munir's life and work through an article written by Mr. Chang Chiu. The article provides accounts of Munir's exemplary contribution to human rights and to the demand for accountability as part of the democratic transition of Indonesia.

Munir as he is popularly known, was the most fearless and outspoken critic of Indonesia's armed forces which committed gross human rights violations in Papua, Aceh and East Timor during the 32-year authoritarian of former Indonesian president Haji Mohammad Suharto. He became the powerful voice of the voiceless victims of human rights abuses as he championed their cause in and out-of-the-courtroom even in the face of intimidation and coercion, including death threats. After the fall of the Suharto government, Munir co-founded the Commission for Disappearance and Victims of Violence (Kontras) to help the families of democratic activists who were kidnapped and murdered by the military to know the truth and to seek justice. He also served as a member of IMPARSIAL, a commission created by the government to investigate the human rights violations in East Timor. It was during this period when he was elected Chairperson of AFAD, a Federation of human rights organizations working directly on the issue of enforced disappearances in Asia.

Munir's human rights work didn't leave unnoticed by various international bodies which are also committed to the same principle. He was awarded with numerous recognitions, including a citation as Man of the Year in 1998 by a leading Indonesian Muslim periodical called, "UMMAT." He was also chosen as one of the "Young Leaders for the Millennium" by Asia Week and 'The Right Livelihood Award', which is considered as the 'Alternative Nobel Prize' in 2000 for his courage and dedication to human rights.

However, this same principle had also put Munir's life in peril. There were those who considered him as a threat to their power and interest and would want him no less than dead. On 7 September 2004, the shadow of death had finally whisked away a good soul, Munir was murdered with a fatal dose of arsenic on a Garuda flight bound for Amsterdam. He was supposed to take up a scholarship in humanitarian law and human rights at Utrecht University. A Garuda pilot suspected of being a member of BIN (Indonesia's National Intelligence Agency) was accused of murder in conspiracy with the national airline officials. Despite legal maneuvering to throw out Munir's case, the mounting pressure from local and international human rights community had paved the way to two convictions. Polycarpus Budihari Priyanto was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment while Garuda's former chief executive, Indra Setiawan was sentenced for one year for being an accomplice. But even when the Indonesian courts had convicted the principal suspects, evidence still shows that they did not act on their own and there is an indication of a clear involvement of the secret services. In fact as early as June 2005, a government-appointed fact-finding team had already handed over its report to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with its recommendation to investigate the role of National Intelligence Agency in Munir's death.

It was only after three years since the fact-finding team's report came out that the government acted on it. In August of this year, Major General Muchdi Purwopranjono, a deputy director at the time of Munir's death, who was in charge of covert military operations, was arrested and charged with premeditated murder. During Munir's murder case, it was established that the convicted Garuda pilot had a regular mobile phone communication with General Muchdi which provided a valid ground to believe that he ordered the killing of Munir. Although the arrest of General Muchdi is considered by many as a breakthrough in the fight against impunity and a good showing on the part of the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who for keeping its promise to clean up Indonesia's tarnished human rights reputation, the complexity of Munir's death can not just put to blame those who were incidentally placed down the chain of command responsibility. The involvement of the state intelligence agency in the Munir's murder shows the invisible hands from the higher ups.

Truly, Munir's murder case is a litmus test not only to Indonesia's justice system but also to its human rights situation particularly in providing protection to human rights defenders. Munir's life will always serve as our guiding light. His courage and dedication will continuously inspire us in our struggle until those who are responsible for his death and for all human rights violations committed against thousands of innocent victims are brought to justice. We will not allow that his death be in vain. Munir's life and death will forever relive his dream to build a peaceful, just and humane society and world where injustices and disappearances will have no place.