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‘Weird’ police probe rules Indonesian activist died in drink-driving crash

  • Police in Indonesia have ruled the death of an outspoken environmental activist a lone drink-driving accident.
  • But former colleagues of Golfrid Siregar, 34, dispute this finding, pointing to several holes in the evidence cited by police, including independent testimony from his family that he wasn’t a drinker.
  • Golfrid’s death has prompted an international outcry, with groups such as Human Rights Watch calling for a thorough and transparent investigation into his death.
  • Golfrid provided legal assistance for local communities ensnared in land conflicts with oil palm companies, and at the time of his death was involved in a lawsuit over alleged forgery in the permitting process for a controversial hydropower project in an orangutan habitat.

MEDAN, Indonesia — Police in Indonesia insist that an outspoken environmental activist found dead under suspicious circumstances in the Sumatran city of Medan last week was killed in a motorcycle crash. But fellow activists have refuted the claim, saying the evidence cited doesn’t stack up.

Golfrid Siregar, 34, a member of the legal advocacy team for the North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), died on Oct. 6 in a hospital, three days after being found unconscious on a traffic overpass in Medan, North Sumatra province. A rickshaw driver had found him in the early hours of Oct. 3 and taken him to hospital.

Police launched an investigation, during which they questioned Golfrid’s family, the rickshaw driver and others, and on Oct. 11 announced their findings. They said Golfrid had been drinking and died in a motorcycle crash. They ruled out the involvement of any other party in the activist’s death.

The evidence they cited included injuries that they said occurred on the right side of his body and thus indicated he had crashed into the curb. They also said a liquid sample taken from his stomach three days after his death revealed traces of alcohol. Police said one of the nurses who first treated him when he was brought to hospital reported that his breath smelled of alcohol.

According to police, two of Golfrid’s friends said he had been drinking beer at a roadside kiosk on the evening of Oct. 2 before leaving on his motorbike.

“This shows that the victim had plenty of alcohol [before the incident], although we are still waiting for more details on the alcohol levels,” Agus Andrianto, the Sumatra police chief, said at a press conference in Medan. “The lab results didn’t show any poison or drugs.”

Police have arrested three people in the case, but not in connection with the death: the rickshaw driver and two other people who helped take Golfrid to hospital have been charged with stealing his personal belongings, including his laptop computer, wallet and a ring.

Golfrid Siregar, left, at a protest against the proposed Batang Toru hydropower project, which threatens the only known habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).

Walhi, Indonesia’s biggest environmental NGO, has refuted these findings, saying that much of the evidence cited by police is contradictory.

The organization says Golfrid’s family have denied that he was a drinker. The owner of the kiosk where he was last seen with his friends said they didn’t drink alcohol that night, only coffee and tea. Walhi also said the nurse quoted by police denied smelling any alcohol on his person.

Roy Lumban Gaol, Golfrid’s manager and the head of advocacy for Walhi’s North Sumatra chapter, said the police report was a scheme to paint Golfrid as a drunk who had crashed his bike. The organization has maintained that Golfrid was killed elsewhere and his body and bike dumped on the overpass to conceal the truth.

“To make it look like a traffic accident, the suspects put alcohol into his mouth,” Roy said. “This becomes a very clean scenario.”

Walhi also said that most of Golfrid’s injuries were to the left side of his body. Hospital tests showed fractures running down the entire left side of his skull.

“I was there with Golfrid from when he was still in care until he passed away,” Fhilya Himasuri Sinulingga, program manager at Walhi North Sumatra. She added that his motorbike would have had more scrapes if it had been in the kind of crash that would have caused such severe injuries. “This [police report] is so weird,” Fhilya said.

The North Sumatra police hold a press conference to announce their findings into the death of Golfrid Siregar. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

Golfrid’s death has grabbed global attention and sparked calls from human rights activists for a thorough and transparent investigation. Human Rights Watch said the nature of Golfrid’s death and the threats he received had raised numerous alarm bells.

“All those concerned about Indonesia’s environment will be watching the authorities to ensure that a credible investigation occurs and that any crime associated with his death is appropriately prosecuted,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Golfrid was best known for his work with legal aid and civil society groups in helping local communities ensnared in land conflicts with oil palm companies.

His most recent work was on a lawsuit against the North Sumatra government over the alleged forgery of a researcher’s signature in an environmental impact assessment for a proposed hydropower project. Activists say the planned dam would threaten the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), a critically endangered species. According to Walhi, Golfrid had recently lodged a complaint to the National Police against the North Sumatra Police’s decision to drop the investigation into the alleged forgery.

He was also involved in other controversial North Sumatra litigation, defending villagers against a concrete company in the city of Siantar, helping villagers in Karo district over illegal logging, and assisting fishermen in Deli Serdang district in their dispute against a sand-mining company.

Golfrid’s death is the latest in a disturbing pattern of environmental defenders dying under suspicious circumstances in Indonesia. From 2010 to 2018, there were 171 recorded cases of violence against activists in Indonesia, according to Ainul Yaqin from the Indonesian Human Protection Foundation (YPII). Most of the victims were environmental activists.

Earlier this year, the head of Walhi’s West Nusa Tenggara chapter survived an arson attack after assailants barricaded him inside his home and set it on fire.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Oct. 13, 2019.

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