Rights Groups Seek Probe into Death of Indonesian Official Opposed to Mine

Arie Firdaus
Rights Groups Seek Probe into Death of Indonesian Official Opposed to Mine Rescue workers carry a body bag with a victim after a landslide at an illegal gold mine in Bolaang Mongondow, a regency in Indonesia’s North Sulawesi province, Feb. 28, 2019.
Antara Foto via Reuters

Indonesian human rights and environmental groups are calling for further investigation into the death of a local government official who had voiced opposition to a Canadian-owned gold mine on his island after police said he died of natural causes.

Helmud Hontong, 58, the deputy head of the Sangihe Islands, a regency made up of islets in North Sulawesi province, died aboard a Lion Air flight from Bali to Makassar on June 9 after reportedly vomiting blood. Police on Monday said an autopsy they had conducted showed Helmud died of complications from a chronic illness.

Beka Ulung Hapsara, a member of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), said the central government in Jakarta should allow an impartial team to investigate the death.

“We call on the government to conduct a further investigation so that the growing speculation can be put to an end and there’s clarity whether or not he died naturally,” Beka Ulung told BenarNews. 

The official’s sudden death aboard the domestic flight has sparked questions about whether foul play was involved and if it was tied to Helmud’s opposition to a decision by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources to grant the Vancouver-based company, Baru Gold Corp., permission to operate a gold mine on about half of Sangihe Island. 

Merah Johansyah, coordinator of the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), an activist group, said Komnas HAM should participate in an investigation into Helmud’s death.

“We appreciate the police’s swift announcement of the autopsy results, but there’s still speculation among the public,” Merah told BenarNews.

“We are urging an investigation by other institutions, including Komnas HAM,” he said. “He was a high-profile figure who was opposed to a mining permit, so it’s natural that the public makes assumptions.”

In April, Helmud sent a letter to Arifin Tasrif, the minister of Energy and Mineral Resources, expressing his opposition to the mining permit granted to PT Tambang Mas Sangihe (TMS).

Baru Gold controls a 70 percent stake in the Sangihe gold project, with three Indonesian companies holding the remaining 30 percent interest combined, according to the company’s website.

The company, formerly known as East Asia Minerals, obtained an exploration license in 1997. In January 2021, the ministry extended the permit, which will remain valid until 2054.

In his letter, Helmud alleged that a mining operation on Sangihe was against the law because it is a small island of ​​73,000 hectares (180,000 acres), making it vulnerable to environmental destruction.

The letter, copies of which circulated on social media, was confirmed by the energy ministry on Sunday. 

Data on the ministry’s website show that the company’s operation on Sangihe covers 42,000 hectares (104,000 acres), or about half the island.

Merah said the permit’s issuance potentially violated a 2014 law on the management of coastal areas and small islands, which bans mining on islets.

“There must be a further investigation into the mining permit issued in Sangihe,” he said.

Guspardi Gaus, a lawmaker from the National Mandate Party, made a similar call.

“If irregularities are found, law enforcement authorities must investigate,” he told an online discussion, referring to the granting of the permit.

Ridwan Djamaluddin, the director general of minerals and coal at the energy ministry, said officials there were considering Helmud’s opposition to the mining permit.

“The directorate general is scheduling a meeting with authorities in the Sangihe Islands regency to discuss PT TMS’s mining activities,” he said in a statement on Sunday.

BenarNews could not immediately reach the company for comment.

A spokesman for TMS, Bob Priya Husada, said it would go ahead with its operation on Sangihe, the Tirto news website reported on Tuesday.

“It is not explicitly stated that there should be no mining operations under the law,” Bob told Tirto.

Bob said the company had conducted feasibility studies and that its activities were in line with a local bylaw.

“Mining activities in certain areas that are included in the PT TMS concession are allowed,” he said.

Autopsy results

Helmud’s death has reminded Indonesians of the 2004 death of a prominent human rights activist, Munir Said Thalib, who was killed by poisoning while traveling on a Garuda Indonesia flight to the Netherlands. An autopsy showed that Munir had ingested arsenic poison while on the plane.

An off-duty Garuda pilot who was on the same flight with Munir, Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, was found guilty of lacing Munir’s drink with arsenic. Pollycarpus was sentenced to 14 years in prison, but judges found the motive to be personal.

On Monday, the North Sulawesi provincial police announced that an autopsy conducted by its forensic department had found no traces of poison in Helmud’s body.

“Based on the preliminary results of yesterday’s autopsy, it is certain that no poison or other suspicious material was found,” Brig. Gen. Andi Rian Djajadi, the director of the general crimes office at National Police headquarters in Jakarta, told BenarNews.

Helmud had a history of high-blood pressure and heart problems, Andi said, citing information from the dead man’s family.

“Based on the results of yesterday’s autopsy, no poison or other suspicious substances were found,” Andi told BenarNews.

However, he added, police had taken organ samples for further investigation and results were expected in about two weeks.

Herdawati Greida Simon, a spokeswoman for the Helmud family, said he suffered from diabetes, but it was under control and he had his medicines with him at all times.

“The deceased did have diabetes mellitus, but he had it regularly checked,” the Kumparan news site quoted Herdawati, who is Helmud’s niece, as saying.

“His glucose numbers were not too high. In February, he had a check-up at the Gatot Soebroto Hospital (in Jakarta), the results were normal,” Herdawati said, adding that Helmud’s death was “ordained by God.”


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