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Deadly soccer match in Indonesia shines light on police tactics and the lack of accountability

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Authorities hardly ever face consequences for their actions, according to experts. Additionally, a sizable portion of the police budget is spent on tear gas, batons, and other tools used during protests.

Tens of thousands of Indonesians have been fighting a police force that many claim is corrupt, employs physical force to disperse crowds, and is answerable to no one for years.

Ten protesters were killed by police in Jakarta’s capital city while they were demonstrating against President Joko Widodo’s reelection in 2019. The following year, hundreds of people protesting a new law were baton-charged by police in 15 provinces. In April, police in the northern city of Ternate shot tear gas at a group of nonviolent student protesters, making three toddlers sick.

When riot police in the city of Malang beat soccer fans with sticks and shields on Saturday and unexpectedly fired tear gas at tens of thousands of spectators crammed into a stadium, the world got a glimpse of those tactics. One of the worst tragedies in the history of the sport, the police tactics caused a stampede that resulted in 125 fatalities.

According to experts, the tragedy exposed the structural issues facing the police, many of whom are poorly trained in crowd management and heavily militarized. Analysts claim that almost never have they been held accountable for mistakes.

Jacqui Baker, a political economist at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, who researches policing in Indonesia, said: “To me, this is absolutely a function of the failure of police reform in Indonesia.”

Rights advocates and the government’s Ombudsman have been looking into the conduct of the Indonesian police for more than 20 years. These reports, according to Ms. Baker, have frequently reached the police chief, but with little to no results.

At the Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, Indonesia, on Saturday, riot police beat soccer fans with sticks and shields and shot tear gas at tens of thousands of spectators. Credit…H Prabowo/EPA, via Shutterstock

Why do we still have to deal with impunity, she questioned. “Because there is absolutely no political motivation to actually establish a professional police force.”

Many Indonesians used Twitter to demand the firing of the national police chief following the violence on Saturday. A petition urging the police to stop using tear gas had received close to 16,000 signatures as of Monday night. The Malang police chief was suspended, and the government promised to name the suspects responsible for the tragedy within days in an effort to calm the public’s outrage.

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In Indonesia, the police have never been as strong or as violent. The military was seen as the ultimate power during the three decades that the dictator Suharto ruled Indonesia. However, following his downfall in 1998, the government gave the police tremendous power by giving them control over internal security as part of a series of reforms.

Police officers frequently have the final say regarding whether or not a case should be prosecuted. According to analysts, accepting bribes is common. Additionally, it is the sole responsibility of top officials to look into any allegations of police misconduct. According to rights organizations, they don’t typically.

Except for in 2019, when two students were killed on Sulawesi Island during protests, “almost never has been,” according to Wirya Adiwena, deputy director of Amnesty International Indonesia, any trial over the excessive use of police force.

Two university students were killed in southeast Sulawesi in 2019; protesters in Jakarta demanded that the government launch an investigation into the incident. Credit… Getty Images Adek Berry/Agence France-Presse

Public trust in the police has dramatically decreased, according to opinion polls, falling from 71.6 percent in April 2022 to 54.2 percent in August 2022 as a result of revelations that a two-star police general had killed a subordinate and ordered other officers to cover it up.

A soaring budget and the lack of police accountability have occurred at the same time. The national police budget is $7.2 billion this year, more than twice what it was in 2013. Its budget is greater than that allocated to the ministries of education and health and ranks third among all government ministries in the nation in terms of share.

A large portion of that money was used to purchase gas masks, batons, and tear gas. According to Andri Prasetiyo, a finance and policy researcher who has examined years’ worth of data on government procurement, the national police spent about $217.3 million over the course of the last ten years buying the helmets, shields, tactical vehicles, and other equipment used during protests.

According to Mr. Andri, after Jakarta was rocked by a series of protests involving tens of thousands of Indonesians who demanded that the city’s first Chinese Christian governor in decades be jailed for blasphemy, the purchase of tear gas spiked in 2017 to $21.7 million.

According to policing experts, the use of tear gas by the police in 2019 changed significantly. Officers and protesters engaged in combat in May of that year as anti-presidential election demonstrations turned violent, killing several people, including some teenagers.

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The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence’s deputy coordinator Rivanlee Anandar claims that there has been no “follow-up and investigation” into the deaths. After meeting with the families of five victims, he claims that only one had an autopsy, and the family had not been informed of the results.

Up until today, “we don’t know who the perpetrators are,” he declared.

The budget for the national police force has increased to $7.2 billion. A large portion of this was used to purchase tactical equipment like gas masks, batons, and tear gas. Credit… Getty Images/Ulet Ifansasti

The police’s widespread use of tear gas has no geographic boundaries. From Jakarta to Kalimantan, police have consistently used chemical dispersants to disperse large-scale protests. According to Mr. Andri, the budget for tear gas munitions, which had fallen after the 2017 allocation, shot up once more to $14.8 million in 2020, a sixfold increase from the prior year.

When crowds were protesting against anti-coronavirus measures that year, the police used tear gas. Later in 2020, they used it once more to scatter crowds protesting a massive new law that drastically reduced protections for workers and the environment. During those protests, Amnesty International Indonesia reported that it had identified at least 411 victims of excessive police force across 15 provinces.

Sana Jaffrey, the director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said, “It’s starting to look more like a pattern now.”

According to Ms. Jaffrey, the police budget has been allotted over the years to deal with a number of recent protests, but “the nuts and bolts and the daily grass-roots work of the police has been ignored.”

According to Mr. Andri, the national police spent almost $3.3 million in January to purchase batons specifically for the East Java Province, where Malang is located.

Numerous police officers show up at soccer games dressed in helmets, vests, and shields and carrying batons in anticipation of violence. Certain fan clubs have commanders who train physically in order to fight. A number of teams drive armored personnel carriers to games.

However, given that soccer violence is common in the nation, with frequent brawls between supporters of rival clubs, experts said they were surprised at the police force’s disorganized response at the stadium on Saturday. They added that the police should have a playbook for any unrest.

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Keeping vigil for the victims on Sunday outside the soccer stadium in Malang, Indonesia, by lighting candles. Credit… Getty Images/Ulet Ifansasti

When fighting broke out during a match involving the local team, Arema, in Malang’s Kanjuruhan Stadium in 2018, riot police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Days later, a 16-year-old boy passed away. There was no information available regarding any investigations into his death or the police response to the riots.

Authorities are now planning to look into what went wrong on Saturday when thousands of fans flocked to Malang to watch Arema play Persebaya Surabaya. Several supporters stormed onto the field after Arema suffered an unexpected 3-2 loss. After that, according to witnesses, the police started to use force and fired tear gas.

Officers suspected of using excessive force at the stadium would face criminal charges, according to the chief security minister.

Inspector General Nico Afinta, the East Javan police chief, claimed on Sunday that the police had acted in accordance with protocol. He claimed that fans “were about to attack the officers and had damaged the cars” and that tear gas had been used “because there was anarchy.”

The Malang Police Department requested that the game be moved to 3:30 p.m. “for security considerations,” according to a letter that was circulated online and whose contents were confirmed by the East Java Province police with The New York Times. This was a sign that the Malang Police Department had attempted to anticipate the violence. The idea was that moving the event earlier in the day would make it more family-friendly. However, the police request was turned down. On Monday, it was impossible to immediately reach the organizers for comment.

Many civil rights activists claim that in order to improve law enforcement strategies, they have repeatedly advised the authorities to refrain from using tear gas, refrain from impulsively swinging their batons at people, learn how to manage crowds, and deescalate situations.

Mr. Wirya of Amnesty International Indonesia said, “The police shouldn’t jump from zero to 100 as standard operating procedure.”

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