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Friday, Dec 09, 2022

Deadly soccer clash in Indonesia puts police tactics, and impunity, in spotlight

After the violence Saturday, many Indonesians took to Twitter to call for the national police chief to be fired.

For more than two decades, rights activists and the government’s ombudsman have conducted inquiries into the actions of Indonesian police. (Reuters photo)

For years, tens of thousands of Indonesians have faced off against a police force that many say is corrupt, uses brute force to suppress crowds and is accountable to no one.

In the capital, Jakarta, police shot and killed 10 people while protesters were campaigning against President Joko Widodo’s reelection in 2019. The next year, officers beat hundreds of people across 15 provinces with batons as they protested a new law. And in the northern city of Ternate in April, officers fired tear gas at a crowd of peaceful student demonstrators, sickening three toddlers.

The world caught a glimpse of those tactics Saturday, when riot officers in the city of Malang beat soccer fans with sticks and shields and, without warning, sprayed tear gas at tens of thousands of spectators crowded in a stadium. The police force’s methods set off a stampede that culminated in the deaths of 125 people — one of the worst disasters in the history of the sport.

Experts said the tragedy laid bare the systemic problems confronting police, many of whom are poorly trained in crowd control and highly militarized. In nearly all instances, analysts say, they have never had to answer for missteps.

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“To me, this is absolutely a function of the failure of police reform in Indonesia,” said Jacqui Baker, a political economist at Murdoch University in Perth in Australia, who studies policing in Indonesia.

For more than two decades, rights activists and the government’s ombudsman have conducted inquiries into the actions of Indonesian police. These reports, according to Baker, have often made their way to the chief of police, but to little or no effect.

“Why do we continue to be faced with impunity?” she said. “Because there is zero political interest in really bringing about a professional police force.”

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After the violence Saturday, many Indonesians took to Twitter to call for the national police chief to be fired. And, as of Monday night, close to 16,000 people had signed a petition calling for police to stop using tear gas. The government moved quickly to quell public anger, suspending the police chief in Malang and pledging to announce the names of the suspects responsible for the tragedy within days.

Police in Indonesia were never this formidable or this violent. During the three-decade rule of dictator Suharto, it was the military that was viewed as all powerful. But after his fall in 1998, as part of a series of reforms, the government assigned responsibility for internal security to the police, giving the force enormous power.

In many instances, police officers have the final say on whether a case should be prosecuted. Accepting bribes is common, analysts say. And any accusation of police misconduct is left entirely to top officials to investigate. Most of the time, rights groups say, they do not.

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Wirya Adiwena, deputy director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said there “almost never has been” any trial over the excessive use of police force except in 2019, when two students were killed on Sulawesi Island during protests.

Opinion polls have shown a sharp decline in public trust toward the police — dropping to 54.2% in August 2022 from 71.6% in April that year after reports emerged that a two-star police general had killed his subordinate and instructed other officers to cover it up.

The lack of police accountability has coincided with a ballooning budget. This year, the national police budget stands at $7.2 billion, more than double the figure in 2013. By share, its budget is the third largest among all government ministries in the country, exceeding the amount given to the education and health ministries.

Much of that money has been spent on tear gas, batons and gas masks. Andri Prasetiyo, a finance and policy researcher who has analyzed years of government procurement data, said that in the past decade, the national police has spent about $217.3 million to procure helmets, shields, tactical vehicles and other implements deployed during protests.

The purchase of tear gas spiked in 2017 to $21.7 million, according to Andri, after Jakarta was rocked by a series of protests involving tens of thousands of Indonesians who demanded that the city’s first Chinese Christian governor in decades be jailed for blasphemy.

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Experts on policing say that 2019 was a turning point in the police force’s use of tear gas. In May of that year, officers clashed with demonstrators as protests over the presidential election devolved into violence, resulting in deaths, some of them involving teenagers.

Rivanlee Anandar, deputy coordinator of the rights watchdog the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, said that there has been no “follow-up and investigation” into the deaths. He has visited the families of five victims and said that an autopsy had been performed in only one case, and that family has not learned the results.

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“We don’t know who the perpetrators are until today,” he said.

The prevalent use of tear gas by police has transcended geography. When faced with mass demonstrations, officers from Jakarta to Kalimantan have consistently reached for the chemical to subdue protesters. The budget for tear gas munitions, which had dropped after the 2017 allocation, soared again in 2020 to $14.8 million, a sixfold increase from the previous year, Andri said.

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That year, police deployed tear gas in crowds protesting against coronavirus measures. Later in 2020, they used it again to disperse throngs demonstrating against a sweeping new law that slashed protections for workers and the environment. Amnesty International Indonesia said it had documented at least 411 victims of excessive police force in 15 provinces during those protests.

“It’s become more of a pattern now,” said Sana Jaffrey, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta.

Jaffrey says that the police budget over the years has been allocated to handle many recent demonstrations, but that “the nuts and bolts and the daily grassroots work of the police has been ignored.”

In January this year, the national police bought batons specifically for officers in East Java province, the location of Malang, that were worth almost $3.3 million, according to Andri.

In anticipation of violence at soccer matches, many police officers turn up decked out in helmets, vests and shields, and armed with batons. Some fan clubs have commanders who engage in physical training to prepare for fights. Several teams arrive at matches in armored personnel carriers.

Still, experts said they were shocked at the police force’s chaotic response at the stadium Saturday, given that soccer violence is common in the country — with frequent brawls between fans of rival clubs — and that police should have a playbook for any unrest.

In 2018, riot police fired tear gas in the Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang when violence broke out during a match involving the home team, Arema. A 16-year-old boy died days later. There were no reports of whether there was an investigation into his death or how police had handled the riots.

Now, authorities plan to investigate what went wrong Saturday, when thousands of supporters gathered in Malang to see Arema host Persebaya Surabaya. After Arema suffered a surprising defeat, 3-2, some fans ran onto the field. Police then unleashed a wave of violence and fired tear gas, witnesses said.

The chief security minister said that officers suspected of wrongful violence at the stadium would face criminal charges.

On Sunday, the police chief of East Java, Inspector General Nico Afinta, said that police had taken actions that were in accordance with their procedures. He said that tear gas had been deployed “because there was anarchy” and that fans “were about to attack the officers and had damaged the cars.”

In a sign that the Malang Police Department had tried to anticipate the violence, it asked organizers to move the match to 3.30 p.m. “for security considerations,” according to a letter that was circulated online and whose contents were confirmed by the East Java province police with The New York Times. An earlier time slot, the thinking went, would make the event more family-friendly. But the police request was rejected. The organizers could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

Many rights activists say that to improve law enforcement tactics, they have consistently made these recommendations to police: Do not immediately reach for the tear gas; do not swing batons at people on first instinct; understand how to control crowds; de-escalate conflict.

“The standard operating procedure should not be that the police jumps from zero to 100,” Wirya said.

First published on: 04-10-2022 at 09:59:54 am
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