Murder in the skies

Mystery surrounds the death of activist Munir, who was poisoned while on a flight to Holland.

THE man who was going to die was laughing.

Bantering with his wife Suciwati and friends at the Soekarno-Hatta airport, human rights activist Munir was the picture of health as he got ready to leave for his law studies in Utrecht, Holland.

Before checking in, he craved for a hot chocolate which he ordered from a doughnut stall. His wife could not resist taking a sip from his cup.

He then bid her and his other well-wishers goodbye on Sept 7 at 9pm.

About 14 hours later, Indonesia’s most prominent activist and biggest thorn in the side of the armed forces was dead on board a Garuda flight to Amsterdam.

All the evidence seems to point to a highly organised assassination. Mr Munir was poisoned, and an autopsy by Dutch forensic experts found large traces of the poison arsenic in his body.

Several groups, especially the military and remnants of the old regime, despised him. Almost all of his activities, including investigating cases of missing persons, were linked closely to monitoring the security forces.

He used to tell his friends that the government and military elements were angry with his investigations and that if he was not kidnapped, the generals would throw him into jail.

Observers believe military elements have the strongest motivation to kill Mr Munir.

In the months leading up to his death, he challenged the government’s decision to pass an armed forces Bill which he thought gave the military greater leeway to abuse its power.

Interestingly, on the flight to Amsterdam, sources said that he was carrying confidential documents of the 1996 attack on Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle headquarters and information on several active and retired generals who might have taken part in it.

But Indonesian military chief Endriartono Sutarto has lashed out at suggestions that the military would assassinate him.

Some believe that Mr Munir also angered other powerful elements in Indonesian society.

Recently, he had acquired evidence of corruption inside a government department that involved key figures in the country.

He also received threats for investigating senior officials and a minister who had inflated the value of several government projects.

So, he had enemies aplenty – not just the generals.

But one thing seems clear. He was murdered by professionals.

How? Investigations are now focused on a mystery man who only recently befriended Mr Munir. He appears to be a Garuda employee who had called his house three days before his death, according to media reports.

The man, whose name has been withheld by police, told Ms Suciwati that he was her husband’s friend and that he would take the same flight to Holland.

He apparently met them along with several activists at the airport in Jakarta.

According to several officials who interviewed him last week, the man admitted that he had persuaded Mr Munir to transfer from economy to business class on the flight to Singapore.

Mr Munir initially declined, but gave in eventually. ‘We are not really sure, but we believe that Munir as a business class passenger was given a meal during the 90 minute flight,’ said Mr Edwin Partogi, an official of Kontras, a human rights organisation.

The man did not join the activist for the flight to Amsterdam.

Some forensic experts suggest that the poison was given within four days before his death. But it could have been much shorter, with many speculating that it was ingested immediately before or during his flight to Singapore.

Mr Munir began showing symptoms while on transit in Singapore.

It got worse in the air later, where he vomited six times and had a diarrhoea attack. A doctor on board the plane gave him medication and an injection, but to no avail.

The autopsy report showed he had died of acute poisoning.

Most of the arsenic was found in his stomach, blood and urine.

This indicated that it was slipped into the food or drink he had just consumed.

Was it the hot chocolate he had before boarding the Garuda flight in Jakarta? Unlikely. His wife also shared the drink. If it was poisoned, it would have also affected her.

Some experts believe that someone could have slipped the arsenic, which can be bought easily in Jakarta, into hot tea or coffee. It is highly likely that Mr Munir had a drink while on the flight to Singapore.

It was not necessary to stir the poison because it would have dissolved easily in the drink. It would also not have affected its taste or colour.

He was most probably poisoned on the aircraft or just before he boarded it. There are still several unanswered questions in this puzzling saga.

But it was certainly murder most foul.

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