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Environmental Lawyer’s Death in Indonesia Accidental, Police Probe Says

Arie Firdaus
Jakarta
2019-10-29
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Indonesian activists display posters near an orangutan mural during a protest against the construction of a Chinese-backed dam in the Batang Toru rainforest on Sumatra Island, March 1, 2019.
Indonesian activists display posters near an orangutan mural during a protest against the construction of a Chinese-backed dam in the Batang Toru rainforest on Sumatra Island, March 1, 2019.
AP

Police in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province said Tuesday they were ending their investigation after determining that an Indonesian environmental lawyer, who had opposed a China-backed hydropower project in the area, died from motorcycle crash injuries earlier this month.

Golfrid Siregar, who worked for environmental advocacy group Walhi, was found unconscious on Oct. 3 in the provincial capital Medan by a pedicab driver who took him to a hospital where he died three days later.

“It has been concluded that the cause of his death was a single-vehicle traffic accident,” Tatan Dirsan Atmaja, a spokesman for the North Sumatra police, told BenarNews.

Previously, police said toxicology results showed Siregar had consumed alcohol and was riding his motorbike when it crashed.

Fellow activists have raised suspicions that Siregar’s death may have been linked to his human rights and environmental work.

Last year, Siregar sued the governor of North Sumatra in the State Administrative Court for issuing a permit for construction of the Chinese-funded hydroelectric power plant in the Batang Toru rainforest on Sumatra Island.

Environmentalists and scientists said the project could threaten the habitat of 800 Tapanuli orangutan. The Batang Toru Ecosystem is the only known home to this species of orangutan, which was discovered in 1939 and recently listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Siregar also filed a police complaint on behalf of an environmental expert who claimed his signature had been forged on a feasibility report for the power plant project.

In August, he lodged a complaint with the national police, accusing North Sumatra investigators of misconduct related to their decision to drop an investigation into the alleged forgery.

Activists with Walhi, also known as Friends of the Earth Indonesia, said Siregar’s death was suspicious because he suffered no apparent injuries other than blunt force head trauma. In addition, his laptop, wallet, mobile phones and wedding ring were missing.

On Monday, a member of Walhi’s national council, Mualimin Pardi Dahlan, urged national police to take over the case.

“We think the [North Sumatra] police have not been fully transparent. Their conclusion is premature,” he told BenarNews. “It is important that this be fully uncovered so there will be no speculation and prejudice about the cause of Golfrid’s death.”

Ray Lumban Gaol, Walhi’s advocacy manager in North Sumatra, said Siregar was not a drinker.

“A nurse [who treated him] at the hospital also said they did not smell alcohol,” Lumban Gaol said.

In addition, the damage to Siregar’s motorcycle was minimal compared with the seriousness of his injuries, Lumban Gaol said, adding repairs cost only 50,000 rupiah (U.S. $3.56).

In response to Walhi’s request, national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said the investigation was thorough.

“It ended at the provincial police,” he said, adding that three people had been named as suspects for allegedly stealing Siregar’s belongings.

While saying the investigation was finished, North Sumatra police spokesman Tatan said anyone with new information on Siregar’s death was welcome to come forward.

“Please submit any finding to us so we can follow up,” he said.

Rights groups press for investigation

The case of Siregar’s death has drawn calls from leading rights advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch, for Indonesian authorities to conduct an impartial investigation into the case.

In a letter to President Joko “Jokowi” on Oct. 16, Amnesty International (AI) urged him to call for a probe into Siregar’s death.

“The investigation of Golfrid’s death must be more thorough and, in considering the circumstances, the authorities must consider the risks and challenges linked to his work,” AI said.

“Suspicions about the circumstances of Golfrid Siregar’s death are heightened by the fact that there have been a long series of problematic incidents over the past few years, involving physical attacks, threats, intimidation, and the criminal investigation of environmental human rights defenders.”

Walhi has criticized the 22.4 trillion rupiah ($1.6 billion) hydropower project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2022, and has urged Bank of China to evaluate its decision to fund it.

PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (PT NSHE), an independent power producer in which China’s ZheFu Holding Group owns a majority stake, is building the 510-megawatt hydropower dam in the Batang Toru rainforest.

The Indonesian firm denied that the project would threaten protected animals, saying the plant would cover an area of 301 acres, or only 0.07 percent of the Batang Toru ecosystem.

The company has said it had no role in Siregar’s death.

“We call [on the media] to respect the presumption of innocence and not to engage in speculation by linking PT NSHE [directly or indirectly] to the death of Golfrid Siregar,” company spokesman Firman Taufik said in a statement earlier this month. “It should be noted that PT NSHE is not a party that is in dispute [with Walhi].”

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