INDONESIA: A detainee found dead in police custody in Tangerang

According to LBH Jakarta, Eric Christian Soemantri was found dead hanging in the toilet of his cell at Tangerang District Police Station on 6 March 2014. Eric’s wife firstly learned of the death of her husband after receiving a text message from the girlfriend of another detainee at 5.30 a.m. on that day. Eric had been in police custody since for approximately two months on the allegation on his involvement in a drug crime.
Eric’s mother and his younger brother, Yudhistira, visited the police station an hour after they received the news from Eric’s wife. The mother, however, was sent home as she fainted before she saw Eric’s dead body. Accompanied by three police officers, Yudhistira went to the police station’s toilet where his brother was still hanging on a sarong tied to a pole inside the plafond that had been smashed.
The police later ordered Yudhistira to take Eric’s body down. Yudhistira climbed onto the toilet and held the body while an officer used a ladder to reach up and cut the sarong. Given the gap between the top of the tub and the plafond as well as Eric’s height, questions remain unanswered on how Eric managed to reach the pole and tie the sarong onto it without using a ladder.
Eric’s body was later brought to Tangerang Police Hospital at around 8.30 a.m. on the same day. The police took Eric’s fingerprint but it is unclear whether an autopsy on his body had been conducted, as the family was never informed on this.
Meanwhile, two unidentified police officers of Tangerang District Police visited Eric’s wife at her house at 9.30 a.m. on the same day. They were accompanied by the leaders of Eric’s and the wife’s villages. During their visit, the officers told Eric’s wife that an autopsy is very costly. They also asked the wife to write and sign a letter dictated by them, stating that she was of the view that an autopsy is not needed and that the family will not sue the police for Eric’s death. Before leaving the house, the officers gave IDR 2,000,000 (approximately USD 200) to the family. Another officer gave Eric’s wife an extra IDR 500,000 (USD 50) when she visited the hospital later in the afternoon.
Eric’s body was later taken home and washed by Yudhistira and five other people. While washing Eric, they found a big blue bruise at the lower centre part of his back. A cut was also found on his lip. Three days before his death, Eric told his wife who was visiting that he had been subjected to beatings and other assaults by several police officers.
Responding to Eric’s death, the Chief of Tangerang District Police told the media that it was a case of suicide. He claimed that the CCTV recording confirms this but such recording was never shown to the victim’s family. The Chief of Police also claimed that an autopsy was conducted and the result confirms that Eric’s death was a suicide. The validity of this statement, however, is questionable as Eric’s family was never informed on the autopsy, even though such notice is required by the law. It is also unclear on why the police asked the wife to sign a letter stating that an autopsy is not necessary, if actually such autopsy was conducted.
Torture and death in custody is not uncommon in Indonesia. At the end of 2011, two minors in Sijunjung, West Sumatra province, was found dead hanging in the toilet of Sijunjung Sub-District Police. The police initially claimed that the death of the minors, Faisal and Budri, was a case of suicide. Upon pressure from human rights groups and activists, the police later admitted that several officers had subjected the minors to torture. In the same year, 23-year-old Yusli was tortured and shot dead by officers of Cisauk Sub-District Police. As happened in this case, the police also provided money to the family and asked them to sign a letter stating that they will not sue the police for Yusli’s death.
Under international law, by arresting and detaining individuals, the state authorities take the responsibility to care for their life, as rightly pointed out by the UN Human Rights Committee in its decision on the case of Moidunov v. Kyrgyzstan. For this reason, criminal investigation is an obligation in the cases of custodial death. The state authorities are responsible to provide a plausible explanation of the events leading to the death of individuals put under their custody. The failure of the authorities to provide such explanations will lead to the consequence that the authorities are responsible for the death. In the case of Salman v Turkey, for instance, the European Court of Human Rights upheld that the Turkish government was responsible of the death of a detainee who was taken into the custody in good health. The Court’s conclusion was based on the failure of the authorities to give plausible explanations for the injuries found on his body.