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Alleged torturers roam free as Indonesia struggles to bring charges in palm oil slavery case

Mongabay - June 21, 2023

Prosecutors in Indonesia have still not charged the majority of men implicated in a slave-labor scandal at a local official's oil palm plantation.

The New York Times reported that only 13 of some 60 men, including military and police officers, remain free despite dozens of victims and witnesses accusing them of human trafficking and torture.

The official, Terbit Rencana Perangin-angin, was jailed last year in a bribery case but never charged in the human trafficking case for enslaving the victims under the guise of a drug rehabilitation program.

Prosecutor said a reliance on local police investigators whose own colleagues had participated in the forced-labor scheme had impeded their work.

Only 13 of some 60 men implicated in a human trafficking case in which Indonesian drug users were imprisoned under the guise of a rehabilitation program and forced to work on a palm oil plantation have been charged, with the local district attorney citing a lack of police cooperation as impeding his office from prosecuting many of the alleged culprits, according to a new article by The New York Times.

The scandal came to light last year after Terbit Rencana Perangin-angin, the leader of the district of Langkat in North Sumatra province, was arrested for bribery. When anticorruption officers raided his residential compound, they discovered dozens of men locked in barred cells on the estate. Instead of receiving treatment for their addiction, they had been tortured and made to toil on a plantation and palm oil factory owned by Perangin-angin and his family, witnesses said.

The men have since been freed, and horrific accounts of physical assault have circulated in courtrooms and media reports, with some suggesting Perangin-angin was able to get away with a forced-labor operation because of his considerable influence in Langkat district.

His son, Dewa Perangin-angin, 25, was among the few people punished for their role in the scheme. Judges ruled last November that he had tortured a man to death, beating him during an interrogation about whether he had used drugs before ordering guards to push him into a pond, where he drowned.

"He had this excitement seeing people being tortured," one victim told the Times of Dewa Perangin-angin. "When he tortured people himself, it was out of control."

Dewa Perangin-angin was sentenced to 19 months in prison and has already been freed after serving half his term. No other sentence has exceeded three years, and prosecutors have not charged the vast majority of those identified by victims as involved in the operation.

That includes Terbit Rencana Perangin-angin himself, who was sentenced to seven and a half years in the bribery case but has denied knowledge of what happened inside the cages on his compound. It also includes police and military officers said to have helped guard and even torture the men.

Mei Abeto Harahap, Langkat's chief prosecutor, said a reliance on local police investigators whose own colleagues had participated in the forced-labor scheme had impeded his work. "We know it happened, but the police didn't submit the documents for these particular cases," he told the Times.

An investigation by the Associated Press in 2020 detailed allegations of forced labor and rape on palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are together responsible for more than four-fifths of global production.

Palm oil from the Perangin-angin plantation reportedly flowed into the supply chains of consumer goods giants such as Unilever, Nestle and Reckitt.

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2023/06/alleged-torturers-roam-free-as-indonesia-struggles-to-bring-charges-in-palm-oil-slavery-case