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Farmer dies in custody after being charged in dispute with palm oil firm, prompting COVID-19 fears

Mongabay - April 28, 2020

Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Indigenous rights activists in Indonesia have condemned local authorities over the death in custody of a farmer accused of stealing palm fruit from a plantation company in Borneo.

Hermanus Bin Bison, 35, was among three indigenous farmers in the Bornean province of Central Kalimantan jailed since Feb. 17 following a complaint by PT Hamparan Masawit Bangun Persada (HMBP), an affiliate of the BEST Group. The company itself stands accused of stealing the farmers' land, but has never been investigated.

Hermanus died shortly after midnight on April 26 at a hospital in East Kotawaringin district, Central Kalimantan, were he was transferred from detention after falling ill, including being unable to walk, on April 25. He is survived by his wife and two daughters, ages 6 and 7.

Aryo Nugroho, the farmers' lawyer and head of the legal aid institute in Palangkaraya, the provincial capital, said Hermanus had suffered ill health throughout his time in detention but never given adequate treatment.

At a court hearing on April 6, in which Hermanus was confined to a wheelchair because of difficulty walking, his legal team asked that he be released to seek treatment. The court rejected the request. On April 9, a doctor who visited him in his jail cell, which he shared with several other inmates, found he had asthenia, a condition of abnormal physical weakness, and a fever of 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit), prompting fears he might have COVID-19 and risk infecting others in the overcrowded jail cell.

The lawyers once again petitioned to have him released, and this time the court acquiesced. At Murjani General Hospital in East Kotawaringin later that day, however, doctors said he had a simple cold and could be returned to jail. Back in custody, Hermanus's condition continued to deteriorate, until he was hospitalized again on April 25. He died just hours later.

Aryo said the initial hospital check was inadequate. "The treatment only consisted of him being questioned. There was no checkup like blood tests or chest x-rays," he said.

Dimas Hartono, the director of the Central Kalimantan chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said Hermanus had received better treatment from the doctor summoned to the jail than from the hospital. Despite his being sent to hospital with a high fever the first time, hospital staff didn't record his temperature, Dimas said.

Police also failed to act on the doctor's advice that Hermanus be held separately from the other detainees, instead keeping him in a small cell with several other people.

"The recommendation by the doctor who was summoned to the jail was not followed up on by either side," Dimas told Mongabay.

Aryo said the actions by the hospital and the police raised questions about Hermanus's death. "They said his condition was not an emergency, and yet he passed away two weeks later."Nur Hidayati, the national director of Walhi, said the way Hermanus was treated was in stark contrast to how politicians or businesspeople implicated in corruption were dealt with. Corruption convicts have been known to enjoy lavish lifestyles behind bars by bribing prison staff to get their cell upgraded, often to the level of a studio-type apartment. Graft convicts have also been documented abusing their right to hospital visits to actually go shopping or pursue other leisure activities on the outside.

Nur called on higher authorities to investigate the judges, prosecutors and police for allegedly hampering Hermanus's access to adequate medical treatment. She also urged the government to address the root of the problem, which is the long-standing conflict between the villagers and the palm oil company.

"The agrarian conflict, which is the root cause of Hermanus' death, has to be solved immediately," Nur said.

PT HMBP legal department staff Hendri declined to comment on the issue of Hermanus' detention, saying only that the firm would let the law take its course.

"For the case of the three people, because this is a legal matter, we entrust this case to the authorities," he said.

Nur also called for Hermanus's two co-defendants, James Watt and Dilik Bin Asap, to be released from detention as part of a wider government program to ease prison overcrowding in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. But Aryo said he was pessimistic the court would allow it, given that the judges haven't let Hermanus's death delay the ongoing trial.

The latest hearing took place on April 27.

"Our hope was to get the trial postponed out of respect for Hermanus's death," Aryo said. "But the judges went ahead with their decision, even though his body hasn't been buried yet."

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2020/04/indigenous-farmer-dies-after-being-charged-with-stealing-from-his-own-land