Police and prosecutors escort Garuda Indonesia pilot Pollycarpus Priyanto (C) to a court for his trial in Jakarta on December 20, 2005, over the murder of a leading Indonesian human rights activist. Piyanto has died from Covid-19. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

In claiming the life of former Garuda Airlines pilot Pollycarpus Priyanto, the convicted killer of human rights activist Munir, the coronavirus pandemic has reawakened questions surrounding one of Indonesia’s most sensational murder conspiracies.

But that’s about all it will do.

Priyanto’s death on October 17 came more than 16 years after Munir, a strong critic of the Indonesian military and its human rights record, died in agony aboard an Amsterdam-bound Garuda flight from an arsenic-laced orange drink he had ingested during a stopover in Singapore. 

Sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment in 2005, the pilot was acquitted by the Supreme Court a year later for lack of evidence, then in 2007 had his conviction reinstated on appeal by the same court, which extended his jail term to 20 years.

Given Priyanto’s lack of motive for killing someone he didn’t know and evidence given in the trial, human rights organizations have always insisted that Munir’s murder was in fact a conspiracy involving multiple players bent on exacting revenge long after Munir ceased to be more than an irritant.

“The evidence is all there, it’s only a matter of political will,” says Human Rights Watch representative Andreas Hartono, noting that the statute of limitations on the case runs out in 2024 – the year of the fourth change of government since the killing.

Retired general Muchdi Purwopranjono, then deputy chief of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), was acquitted in 2007 of allegedly masterminding the crime, but left unexplained were the 41 phone calls Priyanto made to his cell-phone before and after the murder.

Muchdi Purwopranjono (C), a former army commander and senior officer in Indonesia’s State Intelligence, leaves a court after his trial in Jakarta on December 2, 2008. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Court-martialled in 1998 for his alleged role in the abduction of pro-democracy activists in the dying days of President Suharto’s rule, Purwopranjono later entered politics, first joining the newly-formed Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) of Prabowo Subianto, whom he served under in the special forces.

The two later had a falling out and Purwopranjono eventually ended up as leader of the Berkaya Party, founded by Tommy Suharto, the former president’s son, who had hoped to benefit financially from a coalition with Gerindra.

But sources familiar with events say Prabowo, Suharto’s former son-in-law, was well aware of Tommy’s reluctance to use his own money to finance Berkaya, which in the end won only 2.09% of the national vote in the 2019 legislative elections. 

The last development in the Munir case was in 2018 when human rights activists demanded police investigate another retired special forces general, Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, who was the head of BIN at the time of the murder.

Then attorney-general Abdul Rahman Saleh could only gesture helplessly when he told this writer that although police and prosecutors were suspicious of the connection between Priyanto and BIN, there were no recordings or any other evidence that would lead to a successful prosecution.

Palace sources insisted that president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was “frustrated” over the lack of progress made by the police, whose often testy relationship with the military and the influence of shadowy figures suspected of being behind the murder proved to be insurmountable obstacles. 

Yudhoyono’s decision to allow the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into the investigation, announced only a day after his talks with President George W Bush in late 2007, reflected concern over how a new Democrat-dominated US Congress would react.

Outgoing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (R) salutes as he leaves the presidential palace after a military ceremony for incoming Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the presidential palace in Jakarta on October 20, 2014. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

With the Democrats winning back control in both the House of Representatives and the Senate following mid-term elections, the dead activist’s wife, Suciwati, had been given a sympathetic hearing when she visited Washington to drum up support for her campaign to see justice done.

Yudhoyono’s aides feared that the Munir case would lead to the unraveling of bilateral military-to-military ties, which had been restored only a year before after authorities co-operated in the successful resolution of the 2002 ambush slaying of two American schoolteachers in Papua. 

In the end, the FBI never joined the investigation, which without any taped phone conversations would have required agents to focus on building a “consequence chart” – determining when the calls were made and then sifting through evidence, such as credit card and sales records, to determine how Priyanto had responded each time.

Under normal circumstances, that would have allowed investigators to look for patterns and try to assemble a chain of circumstantial evidence that would all point to only one possible conclusion: that the off-duty pilot was reacting to instructions.

Suciwati openly accused Purwonpranjono of ordering her husband’s death during Priyanto’s trial. The lower court judges seemed to agree. In their verdict, they said the calls made to his phone led them to conclude that an “understanding had been reached between the defendant and the phone caller over the elimination of Munir’s life.”

In a February 2005 interview with Tempo magazine, Purwopranjono claimed he only had his phone at night and that it could have been used by numerous people. “It would be stupid of me to order someone killed and then call him all the time,” he said. “Am I that stupid?

Indonesian National Police Chief General Sutanto talks to journalists as Patsy Spier, the widow of Rickey Lynn Spier who was killed in an ambush in 2002, listens in Jakarta on January 16, 2006. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

But he refused to be questioned by police, an immunity not available to ordinary Indonesians. “So far, I’ve kept quiet,” he said. “I thought, ‘let it go.’ I thought that after the legal process had run its course, everything would come to an end. In fact, it has just grown worse.” 

National police Chief General Sutanto had previously urged Priyanto to disclose the identity of the mastermind behind the murder, saying the key to the investigation lay with him. But his initial acquittal by the Supreme Court enabled him to claim he was innocent of any wrong-doing.

Bringing in the FBI may have provided Yudhoyono some cover from State Department pressure, but it would have exposed the government to criticism that it was using outsiders to do its dirty work, instead of confronting its demons head-on.

Similar political dynamics did not attend the Papua case, where the US Justice Department and the FBI were involved in both the investigation and building the subsequent court case against the separatist fighter accused of killing the teachers. 

But the Munir conspiracy persuaded critics in Congress that for all the progress made towards democratic government, Indonesia was still reluctant to get to grips with its past or to dismantle the culture of impunity that continues to protect powerful figures accused of past misdeeds.

In previous cases involving members of the Indonesian military, prosecutors and judges demonstrated either an inept grasp of humanitarian law or a lack of courage in making the charges stick, particularly against those officers charged with crimes against humanity in East Timor in 1999. 

Priyanto was granted parole in 2014 and officially finished serving his sentence in 2018 – the year he joined the Berkaya Party, where Prowopranjono, 71, is still general chairman. His death at the age of 57 is unlikely to change anything.

“The case isn’t dead,” says Harsono of Human Rights Watch, “but it isn’t moving either.”