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'More lenient than to a chicken thief': Grief, anger run high in Indonesia's Malang a year after deadly football stampede

Channel News Asia - September 29, 2023

Nivell Rayda, Malang, Indonesia – There was a time in a not-so-distant past when for a few hours every weekend, the city of Malang in Indonesia would appear deserted.

Virtually everyone in the hilly city of 800,000 people was either at the Kanjuruhan Stadium in the outskirts of Malang or glued to the television sets at home or at cafes and roadside food stalls, rooting for their once beloved football club, Arema FC.

The mood of the city would change depending on the outcome of each match.

Whenever the club won, supporters in Arema jerseys and other attributes would parade the city in their motorcycles and cars to celebrate their victories. Conversely, the mood of the city would turn gloomy and sombre whenever the club lost.

That all changed on Oct 1, 2022, when 135 people were killed in a stampede at the Kanjuruhan Stadium, making it the second deadliest football tragedy in the world.

"I haven't watched a single (Arema) match since (the tragedy)," plantation owner Devi Athok Yulfitri told CNA, adding that many of his peers have also stopped seeing matches in person or on the small screen.

"It's just too painful. Whenever we see Arema play, all we can think about are all the loved ones and friends we lost that night."

Ironic twist of fate

Mr Yulfitri used to be an Aremania, a nickname for die-hard Arema fans. Before the tragedy, he would attend almost every home and away match the club played.

So much was his love for the club, he would occasionally get into brawls with rival supporters, without caring if he ended up getting injured, arrested or killed.

"The only reasons I stopped (participating in brawls) were my two daughters," the 44-year-old said. "Whenever they saw me trying to get into a fight, they would say 'Daddy don't, let's just go home'."

In an ironic twist of fate, it was his two daughters: Natasya Debi Ramadani aged 16 and Nayla Debi Anggraini aged 13 along with Mr Yulfitri's ex-wife Gebiasta – who like many Indonesians went with one name – who were among those killed that fateful night while Mr Yulfitri could not make it to the match because he had work to do.

According to the investigation by a government-sanctioned fact-finding team, the stampede was primarily caused by the police shooting tear gas at spectators, after some had invaded the pitch.

The use of firearms or crowd control gas is barred by football's world governing body, FIFA, particularly in enclosed stadiums that offer little escape for victims seeking to flee from the choking and burning effects of tear gas.

To make matters worse, organisers of the match failed to ensure that all gates were unlocked during the ensuing chaos.

As a result, hundreds of people found themselves trapped and eventually crushed by the weight of other scrambling spectators, particularly at the now-infamous Gate 13, where it is believed many of the dead and gravely injured were found, though there was no official data.

One year on, only five people – three police officers and two organisers – were ever put on trial. They were each given a sentence of between one to two-and-a-half years in prison for their respective roles in the tragedy.

The punishment did not sit well with families of the fallen victims who believed that the jail terms were too lenient and demanded that more people be charged.

"I will not rest until everyone responsible is punished justly," Mr Yulfitri said.

A night of horror

That fateful night, Arema was playing against their bitter rival Persebaya, a club from the nearby city of Surabaya, some two hours' drive north.

Rivalries between the two clubs have lasted for decades and brawls between supporters of the two clubs were so commonplace that Persebaya fans were barred from attending the match at Malang's Kanjuruhan Stadium.

Arema had never lost to Persebaya on home soil for 23 years, which is why Aremanias were devastated by the 2-3 defeat.

When the final whistle was blown at 10.30pm, several fans climbed the four-metre high fences separating the players and the spectators and descended onto the pitch.

"It is tradition for Aremanias to come up to our players after a match. Whenever Arema was playing well, Aremanias would come up to them and praise them. Whenever the players were playing poorly, we just wanted to have a few words with them," 53-year-old Dian Berninandri, who attended the Oct 1, 2022 match, told CNA.

Mr Berninandri said he has been attending countless Arema matches for more than 30 years, and each time pitch-invading Aremanias would immediately retreat whenever police employed more moderate means like releasing the dogs.

Which was why the police's decision on Oct 1, 2022 to fire tear gas at the 42,000 spectators at Kanjuruhan came as a shock to Mr Berninandri.

"At first, they were firing at the pitch invaders but next thing you know they were firing at the stands including the grandstand where women and children were sitting," he said, adding that he immediately ran for the exits and managed to get out of the stadium unscathed.

The Indonesian National Police had earlier argued that the use of tear gas was authorised as the number of pitch invaders grew from just a handful of supporters to several hundreds over the course of just a few minutes.

Police also maintained that they never fired tear gas at the stands, claiming instead that a sudden gust of wind carried the nauseating gas away from the pitch and into the rest of the stadium.

Mr Akmal Marhali, a member of the government-sanctioned fact-finding team, said the use of tear gas was uncalled for.

"(The tragedy) did not involve supporters of Persebaya, because early on Persebaya supporters were banned from coming (to Malang)," he told CNA.

"What caused 135 people to die? According to results from the fact-finding team, it is clear that the main cause was (the firing of) tear gas."

Mr Marhali said the use of tear gas can be dangerous even in an open air stadium like Kanjuruhan, where only the VIP gallery is canopied, as it often leads people to frantically rush down steep steps and narrow hallways, increasing the likelihood of someone getting hurt or killed exponentially.

Mr Bagas Satria, 20, recounted that this was exactly what happened at the Kanjuruhan stadium that night.

"Everyone was panicking. Everyone was rushing towards the exit. But the doors were locked. The people at the bottom of the stairs couldn't go anywhere. Meanwhile, more and more people were coming down the stairs," he told CNA.

"People were screaming for help. There were people who lost their footings and were being crushed," he said.

Mr Satria said he was immobilised for an hour with his legs pinned to the stairs' railings while the back of his head was pressed up against the ceiling.

The lack of oxygen made him lose consciousness and when he woke up he had already been taken to a hospital. The crush had broken both his legs.

The broken bones never fully recovered one year after the tragedy and Mr Satria is now mostly confined to his bed, unable to take more than a few agonising steps at any one time.

But even so, Mr Satria, who used to work at a restaurant but has been jobless since his injury, said he was one of the lucky ones, for so many people had lost their lives that night.

Among the 135 people dead, 43 were under the age of 17 and 42 were female.

Justice remains elusive

Days after the incident, the Indonesian National Police launched an internal investigation against 28 police officers securing the match and decided to suspend nine officers on the grounds of ethical violation.

Police however decided to only pursue a criminal case against three of their own: Hasdarmawan, a field commander for East Java police's mobile brigade unit, Bambang Sidik Achmadi, chief of the Malang police riot control task force and Wahyu Setyo Pranoto, the Malang Police operational chief.

Also facing criminal charges were Abdul Haris, head of the match's organising committee and Suko Sutrisno, the organising committee's security coordinator.

In March, Sutrisno was sentenced to one year in prison by the Surabaya District Court while Haris and Hasdarmawan, who only has one name, were given an 18-month jail term each.

Achmadi and Pranoto were initially acquitted of all charges by the lower court but after public prosecutors appealed the two cases, the country's Supreme Court in August reversed the acquittal and handed them two and two-and-a-half years in prison respectively.

On Sep 27, the Supreme Court also increased the sentence against organising committee head Haris from 18 months to two years. Jail terms for Sutrisno and Hasdarmawan remain unchanged after a public prosecutors' appeal.

Despite being charged as well, director of the league Akhmad Hadian Lukita remains a free man and active in the league with his case never moving to trial one year since the tragedy happened.

Mdm Cholifatul Nur, who lost her 15-year-old son Jovan Farelino in the tragedy, said she is still unhappy despite the Supreme Court handing down heavier punishments for three of the five defendants.

"They are more lenient than (the jail term) given to a chicken thief," she told CNA.

Mr Daniel Siagian, a lawyer for some of the victims' families, highlighted that the trial process had been marred with one controversial decision after the next.

The prosecutors, he said, only brought one or two victims to testify against the five defendants with the majority of the witnesses coming from the police force themselves.

Then there's the decision to hold the trials in Surabaya – which the court argued was for security reasons – instead of where the tragedy took place, which made it hard for the majority of victims' families to attend the proceedings.

Mr Siagian also questioned why the investigation stopped at the five defendants, arguing that there are many more people who should be held accountable for the tragedy.

"One year since the Kanjuruhan Tragedy, justice has not been served. Police are not the sole party responsible. Although they along with the military have used force excessively, other parties must also be held accountable, (match) organisers, club, as well as supporters who break the law," he told CNA.

It is instead the football lovers of Malang who had to pay the heftiest price.

Days after the incident, the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) banned Arema from staging home matches for the remainder of the 2022-2023 season and forced the club to stage its matches at stadiums which are at least 250km from Malang.

Government to improve stadium safety

For almost a year, the Kanjuruhan Stadium stood largely abandoned, frequented not by people hoping to watch sporting matches but by mourners who considered the venue a hallowed ground.

When CNA visited the stadium on Sep 14, tall unkempt grass completely overran the pitch while the canopy protecting the western section of the venue was on the verge of losing some of its roof.

The red-and-blue painted spectator stands remained pretty much the way it was since the tragedy happened.

Torn-down fences and bent metal railings gave hints of what it was like when 42,000 spectators – which was 4,000 more than the intended capacity – who were there that evening scrambled to get away from the nauseating tear gas.

Other reminders of the tragedy were the countless shoes, watches, eyeglasses and other personal articles littering the floors, particularly at the now infamous Gate 13, where many of the victims were killed.

The building's exterior has since been covered with graffiti and posters condemning the tragedy. A four-by-three metre banner bearing the photos of the dead victims now hangs near Gate 13.

The PSSI ban on Arema from holding home matches is not the only reason why Kanjuruhan stood abandoned.

The Indonesian government has decided to renovate the 26-year-old stadium and earmarked 390 billion rupiah (US$25 million) to modernise the venue and make it safer.

The renovation plan does not sit well with many Aremanias who see the move as a way to tamper with what they consider a crime scene and dishonour the memories of those who perished in the tragedy.

"(The government) should have left Kanjuruhan (Stadium) alone. Why can't they build a new stadium somewhere else and make Kanjuruhan a shrine, a place of mourning, a monument to this great tragedy?" one Aremania, Aang Kurniawan, 43 told CNA.

Firmando Matondang, the acting chief of the Malang Youth and Sports Agency, said the renovation will be limited to improving the structural integrity of the stadium and making the venue safer without changing Kanjuruhan's overall design.

Among the works planned is to make the steps and stairs less steep. The existing doors will also be widened and more stairs will be added to connect the upper portion of the spectator stands to ensure a swift exit in times of emergency.

The biggest changes will be in the stadium's capacity, Mr Matondang added.

"There will be no more standing audience which is not allowed according to FIFA standards. Everything will be a single seat," he explained.

Before the tragedy, spectators would sit on long uninterrupted rows of raised concrete floors making the stadium have a capacity of 38,000. But under the planned individual seat arrangement, the capacity will drop to 21,650, Mr Matondang said.

Speaking at a parliamentary hearing on Sep 6, Mdm Diana Kusumastuti, the director-general in charge of human settlement and facilities development at the Ministry of Public Works, promised to honour the victims by not changing the Stadium too much, while revealing that it would be adding a museum and a monument to pay homage to the victims.

The director-general said the two additions to the stadium will be located near Gate 13.

Construction started on Sep 11 and is expected to be completed in 16 months. The ministry is also planning to renovate 21 other stadiums across Indonesia.

Promise of reform

PSSI chairman Erick Thohir told reporters on Sep 15 that there were plans to conduct a sweeping reform inside the association to ensure that the tragedy does not happen again.

"I want to establish independent task forces, not composed of PSSI people... I want transparency," he said, adding that the task forces will each have their own jurisdictions from overseeing supporters, investigating allegations of match-fixing and auditing how the association and clubs manage their expenses.

The police have also promised to evaluate how football matches are safeguarded to be more in line with FIFA regulations.

One month after the tragedy, Indonesian National Police chief Listyo Setyo Prabowo issued a regulation barring police officers from using tear gas, firearms, smoke grenades or water cannon vehicles inside stadiums during football matches.

The use of such weapons is still permitted outside the stadium.

Fact-finding team member Mr Marhali said football supporters must also do their bid and stay away from violence to prevent another tragedy.

"The fact of the matter is that one year after the tragedy, we still see cases of property destruction, brawls, fights and unruly behaviours perpetrated by Indonesian supporters," he said.

According to local media reports, the latest brawl occurred on Sep 19 in Kudus, Central Java between supporters of second-division clubs Persiku Kudus and Persijap Jepara. No casualty was reported but the brawl caused massive traffic jams and the destruction of several public properties.

According to data compiled by Mr Marhali's not-for-profit organisation, Save Our Soccer, 78 supporters have died in football-related fights and brawls between 1995 and 2022.

Since the tragedy, the PSSI has barred supporters from attending away matches and ensured that all standoffs between two rivalling clubs are held in the afternoon instead of at night for safety and security reasons.

But the ban has not stopped the violence completely.

There are, however, attempts by some fans to stop the violence, with the Kanjuruhan Tragedy serving as a perfect momentum to set aside differences between supporters of different clubs.

Mr Husein Ghozali, coordinator of one of Persebaya fan clubs, said that after the Kanjuruhan Tragedy, many clubs and their supporter groups came to Malang and offered their support to the Aremanias.

These efforts have created the perfect opportunity, Mr Ghozali said, for supporters of different clubs to get to know one another and forge relationships.

These informal talks between supporters have led to the formation of the Indonesian National Football Supporter Presidium in February, allowing fan clubs to communicate with each other to prevent violence and resolve any differences.

But Mr Ghozali admitted that more work needs to be done for the unity shown between coordinators of different fan clubs to trickle down to the average supporters on the ground.

"It takes time. (The presidium) is not even a year old. We are all here to enjoy ourselves and support our teams not to make enemies. We are all of the same nation. Why must blood be spilled over nothing," he said."I hope we all can work together to stop the violence. That's the only way we can prevent another tragedy from happening." – CNA/ni(kb)

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/indonesia-malang-football-stadium-stampede-safety-justice-reform-380465