An airline pilot will face trial in the death of a prominent Indonesian human rights activist who died of arsenic poisoning while on a flight to Amsterdam, a five-judge panel ruled Tuesday.
Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, a pilot with national airline Garuda Indonesia who was off-duty at the time, is accused of putting poison in Munir Said Thalib’s orange juice during a flight from Jakarta, the capital, to Singapore last year. The 38-year-old activist fell ill and died on the second leg of his journey to the Netherlands.
Munir was a vocal critic of the Indonesian military and its record of human rights abuses.
A fact-finding panel appointed by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reported in June that employees of the National Intelligence Agency had been implicated in the slaying but that some senior officials had not cooperated fully with the inquiry.
The presidential commission concluded that Pollycarpus had ties to the intelligence agency and that he had repeatedly telephoned an official at the agency’s headquarters before and after Munir’s death.
Pollycarpus is the only person charged in the slaying.
Former intelligence director Gen. Abdullah Hendropriyono has denied that the agency, known by its Indonesian acronym BIN, was behind the killing. But he said some employees could have acted on their own.
“I never ordered the murder,” he told the Jakarta Post, an English-language daily. “If it is the work of the institution, I should know. [But] if it’s the work of individuals at BIN, then let the legal process proceed.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, the judges rejected a defense motion that the charges against the pilot be thrown out on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
Munir’s widow, Suciwati, who has called for justice in the case, applauded the ruling and said she hoped the trial would lead authorities to the mastermind of the killing. “Pollycarpus is the key to everything,” she said after the hearing.
Defense attorney Mohammed Assegaf, however, said he believed it was unlikely that the trial would bring any new insight to Munir’s killing because the prosecution’s case was based on the theory that Pollycarpus acted alone.
The three-page indictment alleges that Pollycarpus killed Munir because he believed the human rights activist was undermining the unity of the country.
Pollycarpus learned that Munir was going overseas to study and came up with the sophisticated plan to assassinate him, according to the indictment.
The pilot contacted Munir’s wife two days before the flight and then arranged to be on the same airplane, the indictment charges. Before takeoff, it says, he arranged with the flight crew to give Munir a seat in business class, where it would be easier to administer the poison.
Prosecutors allege that Pollycarpus put the arsenic in a glass of orange juice, which was served to Munir by a flight attendant. He watched as Munir drank the juice, then went to meet with the pilot of the plane, the indictment says.
The flight attendant and a colleague are under investigation.
Munir became violently ill hours later on the second leg of the trip and was given a sedative by a doctor on the flight who did not recognize the signs of arsenic poisoning. Munir died about three hours before the flight landed in Amsterdam.
A total of 36 witnesses are scheduled to testify, but defense attorney Assegaf argued that the case against the pilot was “very weak.”
“There is no evidence that Pollycarpus put the arsenic inside the glass,” the attorney said. “There is no witness who saw Pollycarpus do that.”