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Four years on, death of Ambon rights figure still leaves hints of anguish

Jakarta Post - April 28, 2020

Belseran Christ, Maluku – Four years ago, Ruth Lawalata did not expect to bid farewell to her activist husband Yohanes Yonatan Balubun for a final time.

In the early hours of April 8, 2016, the former head of the Maluku chapter of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) passed away at the Dr. M. Haulussy City Hospital in Ambon after spending 24 hours in intensive care.

"I was hopeful when I saw that he was trying to move his body, but that lasted only for a while. Then he went away forever," Ruth told The Jakarta Post earlier this month.

Ruth remembered vividly how she warned her husband not to party too hard that night as he got ready to celebrate the birthday of Edwin Huwae, then head of the Maluku Regional Representatives Council (DPD), on the night of April 6.

"That night, I remember that he wore a blue long-sleeved shirt and a clean pair of jeans. I told him not to drink too much, even though he doesn't like to get drunk," she said on April 8.

Yohanes was bound to leave for Sorong, Papua the next morning but was instead admitted to hospital, after residents of Jl. Ina Tuni in Ambon's Sirimau district found him slumped over his motorcycle faced down and unconscious, his head pushing on the horn that gave away his location, halfway down a gutter.

This scene of how he was found would replay in the minds of family, friends and colleagues at AMAN for years to come.

At the time, AMAN and the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) raised their suspicions with the Maluku Police, alleging that Yohanes was tortured before he died.

But the precinct's general crimes investigation directorate dropped the case in June 2016, concluding that the human rights lawyer had died in a traffic accident under the influence of alcohol.

Yohanes' tragic death, later amplified after confirming the results of a second autopsy that identified a mysterious concussion to the back of his head, left hints of unresolved anguish up to this very day.

Even more peculiarities of the case emerged after the case was revisited in a joint investigation between the Post and Tempo media group, after rigorously retracing Yohanes' steps that night, interviewing witnesses, digging through forensics reports and seeking out second opinions from relevant experts.

The investigation has brought to light new evidence and witness accounts that point to the possibility that Yohanes might have been murdered that night.

Agus Pattikawa, then subdistrict head of Waihoka in Sirimau, is believed to have been the last man to see Yohanes before the incident. The police dossier stated that Agus had met Yohanes on April 7 at around 3 a.m. near the latter's home, a few minutes before the latter was found on the side of the road.

Police investigators named Agus a key witness and used his account to conclude that Yohanes was drinking and driving.

But in a follow up interview, Agus claimed the activist had greeted him calmly as he passed slowly by. "He was riding his motorcycle slowly that night," he said, insisting that he would not otherwise have recognized Yohanes.

The facts would get even muddier from there.

Speaking to the Post, Agus said he had met Yohanes an hour before tuning into a Champions League soccer match between Barcelona FC and Atletico Madrid early on April 6, a day prior to the alleged accident. The two neighbors greeted each other at the side of the road just as Agus was taking out the trash. The match was due to start at 3:45 a.m. Eastern Indonesia Time (WIT).

The official timeline was off by one day and 15 minutes, based on the city hospital's record that Yohanes was admitted on April 7 at 3:30 a.m. Based on these findings, Agus could not have been a key witness and the police investigator's report did not compute.

"I was forced to make a statement, so I did. At the time, I forgot when exactly I met Yohanes, but later remembered that it was actually a day before the incident," Agus said.

More details of the investigation were highlighted in Tempo's coverage of the case.

Since then, suspicions have been raised that Yohanes' death may be related to a number of rights cases that he handled as head of AMAN's Maluku chapter.

It was common knowledge that Yohanes had faced death threats for his advocacy at AMAN. According to Komnas HAM and AMAN Maluku's records, the lawyer was managing several cases days before his death.

He had presided over 10 cases, including a land rights conflict between indigenous Noaulu residents and PT Bintang Lima Makmur, a logging company. He also was involved in mediating a conflict in Dusun Dati Air in Tawiri village. In both instances, it was believed that Yohanes had received some serious threats.

For the family of the bereaved, however, reopening the case might prove to cost a little too much, both in terms of anguish and finances.

Now a widow, Ruth instantly became the backbone of her household, working to support their two children. She now works as a tailor to meet her family's daily needs.

"Our [financial] condition turned 180 degrees on its head. We were in dire straits at the time," Ruth recalled.

Vandha, her eldest daughter, said she had no desire to reopen her father's case. It would mean more financial costs for the family, and her mom's occupation does not offer regular pay.

"Since the very beginning I objected to reopening this case because it will cost us a lot of money," she said. At the time of the incident, Vandha was still a junior high school student.

Ruth, however, still harbors some hope that the truth would be revealed someday, especially with the most recent autopsy indicating foul play.

She said she hoped that AMAN, Komnas HAM and the police would continue to investigate the case. (rdi)

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/04/28/four-years-on-death-of-ambon-rights-figure-still-leaves-hints-of-anguish.html