Jakarta – Multiple people have died while being illegally detained at a prison cell run by disgraced Langkat District Head Terbit Rencana Perangin Angin in North Sumatra, the National Commission for Human Rights or Komnas HAM said on Sunday.
Terbit is currently in the Corruption Eradication Commission custody on charges of taking bribes from businessmen who won infrastructure projects from the district government.
As more details emerged about his controversial leadership, rights activists discovered that he built a private prison cell at his residence where detainees were allegedly tortured.
Non-governmental group Migrant Care has reported the finding to the Komnas HAM.
"We received credible information that there were violent conducts leading to casualties. The death toll is more than one," Komnas HAM Commissioner Choirul Anam told journalists.
He said the commission has sent an investigation team to gather evidence and interrogate witnesses.
North Sumatra Police Chief Insp. Gen. Panca Putra Simanjuntak said criminal investigation is underway.
"Our biggest concern is that there are people who died and we simply cannot let it go unexplained," Panca was quoted as saying on the provincial police's official website.
Police said the prison has been operating for a decade during which at least 665 people were locked inside.
According to preliminary investigation, the district head has argued that the prison was meant as a rehabilitation camp for drug addicts but rights activists suspected that the victims were tortured and led to forced labor.
According to Migrant Care, detainees were forced to work at the district head's palm plantations 10 hours per day without payment.
The Witness and Victim Protection Agency or LPSK said relatives of the detainees were asked to sign an agreement that they will not sue prison operators if anything happens to the victims.
According to an account from family members, one victim died after spending a month in the prison and guards told them the cause of the death was frequent stomach acid reflux.
"But the family suspected foul play in the manner of death," LPSK Deputy Chairman Edwin Pasaribu told Kompas news website.
Rights activists have urged law enforcement agencies to pursue human trafficking and slavery charges against the district head who is already named corruption suspect.
Terbit, who came to office in 2019, was detained on January 19 for allegedly taking Rp 786 million in bribe money. He is one of the richest regional leaders in the country with a personal wealth of Rp 85 billion ($5.9 million) according to his public disclosure.