Police in Indonesia’s North Sumatra arrested a pair of suspects in connection with the killing of two activists who were involved in land disputes with palm oil companies, officials and a press advocacy group said Tuesday.
Maraden Sianipar, 55, and Maratua Siregar, 48 – who also both worked as freelance journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) – were found dead last week after being stabbed near a palm oil plantation in Labuhanbatu regency.
Their suspected killers, identified by their initials V.S. and S.H., were arrested on Tuesday morning in their homes in the same regency, local police chief Agus Darojat said, adding that they could face the death penalty if convicted of premeditated murder.
“According to the suspects, they killed the two victims in revenge linked to palm oil plantation land,” he said in a statement without elaborating. He said police are searching for four more suspects.
North Sumatra police spokesman Tatan Dirsan Atmaja told BenarNews the victims were “a journalist and an activist.”
The two had worked for Pindo Merdeka, an online news magazine that closed in 2017, according to the Alliance of Independent Journalists and their former employer.
A press advocacy group wants the killings investigated properly.
“We call on the Indonesian police and prosecutor’s office to do everything possible to find the perpetrators and instigators of this double murder and, if necessary, to create a special team of investigators,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement on Monday.
RSF said after Pindo Merdeka closed, the two worked as freelance journalists covering land disputes between palm oil companies and residents in Panai Hilir district in Labuhan Batu.
“The nature of the reporting undertaken by these two journalists in recent years should be the source of a significant body of hypotheses about the identity of those behind their deaths. No lead should be neglected,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
Meanwhile, Pindo Merdeka owner Paruhum Daulay told a local website that Maratua, also known as Sanjay, founded an advocacy group called Gapotsu. The group advocates for residents involved in disputes with plantation companies.
“He was a good person. Hopefully the police can resolve this case quickly,” Paruhum told Tempo.co.
A friend of Martua said he had advocated for local people in land disputes for 10 years.
“It was Sanjay who invited Maraden to fight for the community in land disputes,” he said.
Maraden ran unsuccessfully for the Labuhanbatu council as a National Democratic (Nasdem) Party candidate in this year’s legislative elections.
Lawyer’s death raises suspicions
In a separate case last month, lawyer Golfrid Siregar, who worked for the environmental advocacy group Walhi, was found unconscious in the provincial capital Medan and died in a hospital three days later. Police ruled his death as accidental, saying he had crashed his motorcycle after drinking beer.
Fellow activists questioned the finding, saying his death may have been linked to his human rights and environmental work.
Last year, Golfrid sued the governor of North Sumatra in the State Administrative Court for issuing a permit for construction of a 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.
In addition, the lawyer 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, Golfrid 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.
The company building the power plant, PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (PT NSHE), has denied any involvement in his death.
Muhammad Isnur, advocacy chairman for the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, urged authorities to protect environmental activists.
“Intimidation and threats against environmental and human rights defenders must stop,” he said.