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The murder muddle

The Straits Times - November 11, 2006

John McBeth – Ms Patsy Spier sat through every hearing these past five months, quietly taking notes with the help of a translator and, just as quietly, returning to her mid-city hotel. For her, the seven Papuans in the dock were on trial for the murder of her husband, pure and simple. Nothing else mattered.

For the defendants, sentenced last Tuesday to prison terms ranging from 18 months to life, the trial was all about the struggle for Papuan independence and what they and their lawyers saw as a kangaroo court that underscored the repressiveness of Indonesian rule.

To them, it was about everything but the criminal act which claimed the lives of 44-year-old Rick Lynn Spier and two of his colleagues, a fellow American and an Indonesian. All three were shot to death in an ambush on the mountain road leading to Freeport Indonesia's copper and gold mine four years ago.

The high-profile trial would have been the perfect stage to reveal what activists still claim was the behind-the-scenes role played by the Indonesian military in the incident. Yet the defendants stayed silent throughout the proceedings, sitting mostly in the public gallery and offering virtually no defence.

Ms Spier, who sent regular trial updates to seven other survivors and 140 other interested people, has no doubt about their guilt. "Justice was served," she says. "The sentences they received for this horrific and cowardly act were just and warranted."

She does not understand why their lawyers did not mount a credible defence and says she saw nothing that indicated they had been intimidated: "They had every opportunity to bring mitigating evidence. I don't know why they didn't, but perhaps there were no extenuating circumstances."

Their boycott was in protest over the trial being held in Jakarta rather than in the district town of Timika on Papua's south coast, near where the killings took place. The authorities moved the venue because of fears that it would be used as a catalyst for further violence in Indonesia's remote, easternmost province.

That would not be unprecedented in a country where civic unrest often spins out of control. A change in venue was also ordered for the trial of three Muslims, charged with last year's beheading of three schoolgirls in Central Sulawesi. Tensions are on the rise again following the recent execution of three Christians accused of a mosque massacre in 2000.

Indicted by a United States grand jury in 2004, alleged Free Papua Movement (OPM) rebel Antonius Wamang was given life imprisonment for the Papua murders. Two other men who took part in the attack received seven-year jail terms and the remaining four got lighter sentences for playing supporting roles.

In a videotaped confession, Wamang admitted leading the ambush on the vehicles carrying the teachers on a Sunday picnic, claiming he thought they were part of an Indonesian army patrol.

Ms Spier herself believes the contention of wanted OPM leader Kelly Kwalik that he had directed Wamang to target only soldiers passing along the road. But that does not ignore the fact that even when the attackers realised their mistake, they did not stop.

Her husband slumped dead over the wheel of the Landcruiser in front of her, Ms Spier huddled with her wounded companions in the rear of a second vehicle as the three gunmen sprayed it aimlessly with more than 200 rounds over the next half hour.

She was hit in the back during the initial shooting and later sustained a second wound in the foot. To this day, the stoic, long-haired blonde does not understand why her husband had to die in such random circumstances. She is determined it should not happen again to anyone else.

Papuan rights groups insist the military ordered the attack to ensure that Freeport continued to bankroll their presence around the mine. But there has never been any evidence that the firm planned to abandon the controversial payments, introduced in 1996 after rioters rampaged through its facilities.

Ironically, the government recently ordered police to take over guard duties at the mine, with a sharply reduced military force maintaining perimeter security. Apart from the 2002 ambush, the only other time the mine has been targeted directly was in 1977 when OPM rebels cut the pipe carrying concentrate to the company's port.

"We never thought it would get this far, but the doors just kept opening," Ms Spier confesses, marvelling at how her quiet persistence brought together the US State Department, Pentagon, National Security Council and congressional offices in a joint effort to force Jakarta to cooperate in the investigation.

Non-governmental organisations which initially joined the campaign quickly dropped out when the inquiries veered away from the military. But they have a real point in continuing to question where the gunmen obtained such a large stock of ammunition. To many disinterested observers, it could only have come from one source.

Ms Spier hopes her experience will encourage others seeking justice. During a meeting with the widow of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib, she urged her never to give up her dogged pursuit of the powerful figures in the country's security apparatus who are suspected of ordering his death.

Although the military leadership was not, in the end, implicated in the Papua killings, Ms Spier notes that was not the perception when the Federal Bureau of Investigation stepped into the long-stalled investigation. "We were going to go in any direction it took us," she says.

Given all the misguided efforts to intimidate journalists and cover up aspects of the case, it is clear senior officers were not at all sure themselves whether their subordinates were involved. It is a suspicion that lingers on today.

Only one of the defendants sought to make contact with Ms Spier, smiling and acknowledging her presence during the trial. "He wanted to shake my hand, but I couldn't bring myself to do it because I didn't know what role he played," she says.

Now she has to pick up the pieces of her life. "I've got to take something positive out of this," says Ms Spier, whose time in Indonesia was funded by the US Department of Justice under the 1984 Victims of Crime Act.