Police in Indonesia have been widely criticized for their heavy-handed approach to securing student-led protests nationwide that have entered its second week, with one particular incident which took place in Jakarta yesterday putting authorities under increased scrutiny.
According to reports, as student protesters were being pushed back by riot police from the Parliament compound just before 7pm yesterday, police fired tear gas around the vicinity of Atma Jaya University campus on Jalan Gatot Subroto, where a medical evacuation shelter had been set up to treat injured protesters.
At the time, at least 50 protesters were reportedly passed out and being treated at the shelter.
Witnesses at the scene said police were firing tear gas toward retreating protesters, some of whom were heading into Atma Jaya. They reportedly continued firing tear gas in the area until around 9pm, with one tear gas canister later found to have landed on campus grounds.
The Jakarta Metro Police brushed off any suggestion that authorities had any ill intention in firing tear gas so close to a medical shelter.
"Maybe the police, out of reflex, [shot in that direction] because that's where the crowd were running to," Jakarta Metro Police Spokesman Argo Yuwono told reporters today, as quoted by Kompas.
"The police did not intend to fire tear gas toward Atma Jaya."
Police say they have arrested 519 people after yesterday's clashes in Jakarta amid nationwide protests against a raft of divisive reforms – including banning pre-marital sex and weakening the anti-graft agency.
At least two students have died and hundreds more injured since last week, as a wave of unrest swept across the Southeast Asian archipelago, just weeks before President Joko Widodo kicks off another term as head of the world's third-biggest democracy.
The protests are among the biggest student rallies in Indonesia since mass demonstrations of 1998, which toppled the Suharto dictatorship.
The recent demonstrations have been fueled by a proposed bill that includes dozens of legal changes – from criminalizing pre-marital sex and restricting contraceptive sales, to making it illegal to insult the president as well as toughening the Muslim-majority country's blasphemy law.
Passage of the reforms has now been delayed, with Jokowi saying he would also consider revising a separate bill that critics fear would dilute the powers of Indonesia's corruption-fighting agency.
Some 13 police officers have been questioned and detained over the deaths of two students in riots on Sulawesi island last week, cases in which authorities previously denied responsibility.
Students have issued a wide-ranging list of demands including scrapping some criminal-code changes, withdrawing troops from Indonesia's restive Papua region, and halting forest fires in Sumatra and Borneo that unleashed toxic haze across Southeast Asia.
Updating Indonesia's criminal code – which dates back to the Dutch colonial era – has been debated for decades, but this year saw a renewed push backed by conservative Islamic groups.
The controversial changes could affect millions of Indonesians, including gay and heterosexual couples who might face jail for having sex outside wedlock, or having an affair.
– With additional reporting by AFP