Site icon Conservation news

Palm owner charged with ordering murder of two journalists in Indonesia

  • Five people, including the alleged owner of an oil palm plantation in Sumatra where two journalists were found dead, have been charged with their murder.
  • The alleged assailants are accused to being paid $3,000 from the company to kill Maraden Sianipar, 55, and Martua Siregar, 42, apparently in retaliation for their advocacy on behalf of locals engaged in a land dispute with the company.
  • The murders on Oct. 29 occurred in the same month that environmental activist Golfrid Siregar was found dead, also in North Sumatra, in suspicious circumstances. At the time he was challenging the police’s failure to pursue a forgery complaint in connection with a permit for a power plant in an orangutan habitat.
  • The recent deaths of journalists and activists defending environmental protection have raised concerns among many observers over the state of activism and press freedom in Indonesia.

MEDAN, Indonesia — Police in Indonesia have arrested five people over the death of two journalists whose bodies were found at an oil palm plantation, including the alleged owner of the plantation.

Wibharry Padmoasmolo, a palm oil businessman, was charged last week by the North Sumatra police for allegedly ordering a hit on Maraden Sianipar, 55, and Martua Siregar, 42, on Oct. 29 at the PT Sei Alih Berombang (SAB) plantation.

Maraden’s body was found on Oct. 30 in a ditch at the concession, while Martua’s was found the following day in the bushes near a warehouse at the same site. Maraden was found with his left arm hacked off and wounds to his head, while Martua had stab wounds to his abdomen, back and head, according to local media reports.

A plantation worker harvesting palm fruit at a plantation in North Sumatra. Image by Nanang Sujana for RAN/Oppuk.

Police said the pair was attacked on their way into the plantation by guards hired by the company. Police arrested four of the alleged assailants last week, prior to detaining Wibharry, and are now on the hunt for three others believed to be involved in the killing.

“They killed the pair because they were promised money [by Wibharry],” Agus Andrianto, the chief of the North Sumatra provincial police, told reporters in Medan, the provincial capital, adding that Wibharry was the one who had ordered the killing.

The four reportedly received a combined 41.5 million rupiah ($3,000) from the company to kill Maraden and Martua, who were outspoken advocates of a local community engaged in a dispute with the plantation company over ownership of the land.

The police added that one of the guards was promised 15 million rupiah ($1,000) by Hr. Joshua, another top official at the palm company, to murder Ranji Siallagan, the head of an association of palm smallholders, in a bid to end the land dispute between the company and locals. Ranji survived the attack.

Wibharry denied the allegation he had ordered the murder or that he owned PT SAB, saying his father-in-law was one of the owners of the company.

Police have charged Wibharry and the four alleged assailants with murder, for which they could face life in prison if convicted. Police also said they would expand their investigation into the case.

PT SAB’s concession was sealed off last year by authorities after it was found to have cleared 750 hectares (1,850 acres) of forest to plant oil palms. The company has also since 2015 been locked in a land dispute with locals seeking control of the oil palms after local authorities ruled that the firm’s expansion onto forested land was illegal.

Locals said violent conflicts were common between the plantation’s security guards and people trying to access the land. The latter, who say they have just as much claim to the illegally cultivated crop as SAB, have sought assistance from environmental groups, including the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), to resolve the land dispute.

The murders of Maraden and Martua occurred less than a month after North Sumatran environmental activist Golfrid Siregar was found dead in suspicious circumstances. Golfrid was known for his work at Walhi helping locals ensnared in conflicts with oil palm companies. At the time of his death, Golfrid was working on a lawsuit against the North Sumatra police over alleged forgery in the permitting process for a controversial hydropower project in an orangutan habitat.

The local police ruled that Golfrid died as a result of drunken-driving crash, but his colleagues and relatives dispute the claim, pointing to discrepancies in the evidence cited by officers, and statements by his family that he wasn’t a drinker.

The recent deaths of journalists and activists defending environmental protection have raised concerns among many observers over the state of activism and press freedom in Indonesia.

A palm plantation in North Sumatra. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay-Indonesia.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Nov. 9, 2019.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.