Jakarta – Last week's acquittal of Maj. (ret) Isak Sattu of all charges in the December 2014 fatal shooting of civilians in the Papuan regency of Paniai came as no surprise. From the very beginning, observers had doubted that justice could be served by the Makassar Human Rights Court in South Sulawesi, partially because Isak was the only person the prosecutors had indicted in the case.As one Papuan human rights activist put it after the five justices delivered their three-to-two verdict on Dec. 8, the trial was designed to fail. Isak was only a liaison officer with the Paniai Military Command (Kodim) at the time of the shootings, which killed five people and injured 21 others.
The bench, nonetheless, agreed that the incident, dubbed Bloody Paniai, constituted a gross human rights violation. Security forces had opened fire into a crowd of demonstrators protesting the alleged beating of a young person the previous day by Indonesian Military (TNI) personnel.
But the fact that only Isak went to trial shows that the proceedings were no more than a formality, especially after early this year President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo formed a team to settle past crimes against humanity first and foremost through "non-judicial measures".
Following its investigation into the Paniai shooting, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) recommended that rank-and-file soldiers and their superiors should shoulder the blame for the tragedy. The commission interviewed two dozen witnesses, analyzed documents and visited the scene to determine to what extent the TNI had been involved in the incident.
The failure of the Attorney General's Office to bring all the alleged perpetrators of the Paniai shooting to justice is more than just a technical problem. There is an acute lack of political will on the part of not only law enforcement but the government as a whole to resolve past human rights violations.
The Paniai shooting is only the fourth gross human rights crime to be heard in court in the country, after the 1999 East Timor atrocities, the 1984 Tanjung Priok massacre and the 2000 Abepura, Papua, incident. In all the cases, all the defendants – military, police and civilians – were acquitted of all charges, either by the ad hoc Human Rights Court or the Supreme Court.
There are many more cases the state is reluctant to address, despite repeated calls from Komnas HAM. The rights body's list includes the 1965-1966 communist purge, the 1998 Trisakti shooting and ensuing Jakarta riots, the Semanggi I incident in 1998 and Semanggi II in 1999. The commission has also recorded a number of crimes against humanity in Papua, apart from the Paniai and Abepura incidents.
The not guilty verdict for Isak in the Paniai shooting is a grim reminder of the daunting challenges the nation faces in upholding human rights as mandated by the Constitution. The acquittal has sent the message, loud and clear, that impunity will persist for years to come unless the AGO takes bold measures – first by challenging the verdict and then by bringing everyone responsible for the tragedy to justice.