Environmental activists in Indonesia have raised suspicions over the death this week of a human rights defender who was a staunch advocate of communities threatened by oil palm plantations.
Golfrid Siregar, 34, a member of the legal advocacy team for the North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), was found unconscious on a traffic overpass in Medan, the provincial capital, in the early hours of Oct. 3 and taken to hospital. He was found next to his motorbike, but personal items including his laptop computer, ring, and wallet were missing.
On Oct. 6, he passed away from severe injuries to his head.
Preliminary police reports suggested he was injured in a motorbike accident or in an attack by bike-riding robbers. But fellow activists have questioned this theory, saying that a traffic accident would have flung him away from his motorbike, and that in the case of a violent theft, the assailants would have taken his motorbike in addition to his other personal belongings. They also note that the injuries were only to Golfrid’s head, and not the rest of his body, ruling out a bike crash.
“We suspect the victim was beaten up at another location,” Roy Lumbangaol, Golfrid’s manager at Walhi, told reporters on Oct. 7. “To eliminate the evidence, he was brought to the location where he was eventually found.”
Walhi has called on police to launch a thorough and transparent investigation into Golfrid’s death. The group also asked the National Commission on Human Rights to monitor the police investigation.
Associates last had contact with Golfrid on the afternoon of Oct. 2, when he left home to deliver a package and have a meeting. By the evening, he couldn’t be contacted. At 1 a.m. on Oct. 3, a rickshaw driver found his body on the overpass.
The police have said they will call in the rickshaw driver for further questioning and check footage from CCTV cameras installed near the location where Golfrid was found.
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.
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.
“The struggle as human rights defenders will always continue,” Walhi said in a statement.