‘Potentially lethal’ police assault on indigenous Papuan was caught on camera

Fresh questions raised in case of Marius Betera, who died around two hours after he was allegedly assaulted by a police officer.

  • Marius Betera was allegedly assaulted by a policeman in an oil palm plantation in Indonesia in May, and died some two hours later, but authorities moved quickly to attribute his death to a heart attack.
  • The Gecko Project and Mongabay have learned that the alleged assault was caught on CCTV camera belonging to a palm oil company, Korindo Group, but the video has yet to be released to the public.
  • Police and the National Commission on Human Rights have cited a post-mortem to dismiss evidence the death was linked to the assault, but expert points to a “realistic possibility” of a connection.

The alleged assault of an indigenous man in the Indonesian province of Papua by a police officer around two hours before he died was caught on CCTV camera, The Gecko Project and Mongabay have learned.

Marius Betera, 40, died at a health clinic in Boven Digoel, a heavily forested district in the far east of the country, in May, shortly after he was reportedly beaten by the officer.

The incident took place outside the office of a logging and oil palm plantation company, the Korindo Group, after Marius arrived to complain that food crops he had planted inside land licensed to the firm had been pulled down.

Police say they have arrested the officer, Melkianus Yowei, and that an investigation is ongoing. A separate investigation by the National Commission on Human Rights, known as Komnas HAM, concluded that Melkianus committed “an act of violence” that was “arbitrary, excessive and unprofessional.”

It has now emerged that the altercation was captured by Korindo’s surveillance cameras. The video has been seized by police as part of their investigation.

Human rights observers have called for the release of the footage, to ensure the investigation by the police of one of their own is impartial, in a region replete with human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, at the hands of the security forces.

“Judging from history, this will end up in impunity if there’s no public pressure,” said Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer who advocates for the rights of Papuans. “The court process and result won’t provide a sense of justice to Papuans. So it’s better if it’s made public.”

Concern over the integrity of the investigation has been heightened after the police moved quickly to dismiss the possibility of any connection between the alleged assault and Marius’s death.

Citing the post-mortem carried out at the health clinic, which is operated by Korindo, police have repeatedly stated that the cause of death was a heart attack. On the basis of the same doctor’s report, Komnas HAM concluded there was “no corroborating evidence that Marius Betera’s death was caused by being beaten” by Melkianus.

In fact, the post-mortem appears to draw no such conclusion. An unofficial English translation of the report, seen by The Gecko Project and Mongabay, says the cause of death “cannot be determined” because an internal examination was not carried out.

A post-mortem report produced by a doctor at the clinic in which Marius Betera died.
A post-mortem report was produced by a doctor at the clinic in which Marius Betera died. An unofficial English translation of the conclusion indicates the doctor drew no conclusions as to the cause of death, though police have stated Marius died of a heart attack.

Dr. Stuart Hamilton, a U.K.-based forensic pathologist who reviewed the doctor’s report and other details of the case at our request, said the post-mortem was “inadequate on every level” and did not justify the conclusion that the assault had not contributed to the death.

“In a case involving a potentially lethal assault this is disturbing,” he said. “To put this very colloquially, the medical report says ‘we did next to nothing to determine how this man died and we don’t have an answer.’”

‘No corroborating evidence’

The alleged assault took place on May 16, after Marius visited a plot of banana trees he had planted along the edge of a road inside Korindo’s oil palm plantation and discovered they had been pulled down by the company so that it could harvest oil palm fruits.

Marius went to the company’s field office, known as Camp 19, at around 11am with his wife to remonstrate with Korindo staff. Conflicting accounts have emerged of the precise events that unfolded. But what is not in dispute is that as Marius left the office, Melkianus attempted to seize the hunting tools he was carrying, a bow and machete.

A road through Korindo Group’s plantation in Boven Digoel, where Marius Betera was allegedly assaulted.
A road through Korindo Group’s plantation in Boven Digoel, where Marius Betera was allegedly assaulted. Photo by Albertus Vembrianto for The Gecko Project/Mongabay.

Korindo described the two men being involved in an “altercation.” One eyewitness described Marius being repeatedly hit in the face and kicked in the stomach, and said that he was left bleeding from the ear.

Around two hours later, Marius went to Korindo’s nearby health clinic in a state of distress, pounding his chest and struggling to breathe, according to the post-mortem report. He refused treatment and within half an hour was declared dead.

Within two days, the district police had used its Facebook account to dismiss as a “hoax” another Facebook post in a public group, alleging that Marius had been killed by a police officer.

The Boven Digoel police used its Facebook page to dismiss the allegation Marius Betera had been killed as a “hoax”.
The Boven Digoel police used its Facebook page to dismiss the allegation Marius Betera had been killed as a “hoax”.

“The results of external examination found no bruises or abrasions on the victim and it is estimated that the victim died DUE TO A HEART ATTACK,” the police wrote.

Two days later, the Papua provincial police spokesman was quoted saying Marius had died of a heart attack. Okto Betera, Marius’s brother, dismissed the conclusion as a “trick,” insisting to the media that his brother had been murdered.

Komnas HAM conducted its own investigation over five days in late June and July, interviewing witnesses and Melkianus.

But while the report described Marius as having been “beaten” and the policeman as having used “excessive” violence, it ultimately concluded that there was “no corroborating evidence” that the assault contributed to Marius’s death.

‘A realistic possibility death resulted directly from an assault’

The post-mortem examination on which the police and Komnas HAM based their conclusions does show that the doctors found no bruises or wounds, but it also states they were unable to confirm the cause of death because they did not carry out an internal examination.

Dr. Hamilton, who has provided expert testimony in murder trials, said the limitations of the post-mortem examination meant that it could not have ruled out a connection between the alleged assault and Marius’s death.

Dr. Hamilton pointed to a range of potential causes of death, from an organ ruptured by blows that left no external mark to a collapsed lung resulting from a broken rib, that could have been brought about by the assault described by witnesses. He said there remained a “realistic possibility that death has resulted directly from an assault.”

Emanuel Gobay, the head of the Papua Legal Aid Foundation (LBH Papua), said the post-mortem report should not have been used as proof that the alleged assault didn’t cause Marius’s death because it was not issued by a forensic doctor.

“The ones who can do that are doctors in hospitals, not doctors in health clinics,” he said in an interview. “Especially since this is a death, not a mere scratch. Therefore, the letter made by a medical officer [at the clinic] can’t be claimed as an expert statement.”

Adding to the puzzle is an allegation by Marius’ brother Okto that he was attacked a second time before he died. Okto said Marius had gone to the police station to ask for his hunting tools, a bow and arrows, that had been confiscated by Melkianus during the incident in front of the company’s field office.

“The perpetrator [Melkianus] who assaulted [Marius] before, thought [Marius] came [to the police station] to threaten him,” he said. “So he went out [of the station] and he beat [Marius again].”

Okto said he believed it was the second attack, not the first one outside the Korindo office, that led to Marius’s death.

The police didn’t respond to a request for comment about the alleged second attack. Melkianus could not be reached for comment.

Confronting impunity

The Gecko Project and Mongabay learned of the existence of the CCTV video of the alleged assault during a separate investigation, published in June, into Korindo’s business and operations in southern Papua, where it has become the largest private landowner, operating sprawling logging concessions and oil palm plantations.

A simmering independence movement among indigenous Papuans over the five decades since the region was subsumed into the Indonesian state has prompted an often violent backlash from the Indonesian security forces and allegations they are committing human rights violations with impunity.

A Papuan man labouring in a Korindo Group plantation in southern Papua.
A Papuan man labouring in a Korindo Group plantation in southern Papua. Photo by Albertus Vembrianto for The Gecko Project/Mongabay.

In February 2019, a group of United Nations human rights experts called for “prompt and impartial” investigations into “numerous cases of alleged killings, unlawful arrests, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of indigenous Papuans by the Indonesian police and military”.

Our previous investigation found evidence that the persistent presence of the police and military had suppressed Papuans’ ability to object to Korindo’s operations on their land. Korindo has denied having any improper relationship with the police and insisted it treats local communities fairly, delivering healthcare and other benefits.

The Gecko Project and Mongabay wrote to both Korindo and the Boven Digoel district police for this story, asking each party to provide us with a copy of the CCTV footage in the interests of determining what happened to Marius in the lead-up to his death.

Korindo chief sustainability officer Kwangyul Peck replied in an email that the company has “maintained direct communication with the family and fail to see any reason for Gecko/Mongabay to get involved.”

In a statement on the case after the release of Komnas HAM’s report, Korindo wrote that it had been “cleared … of every and all accusations of wrongdoing,” and noted that it had given Marius’s family 200 million rupiah (around $13,500) and provided them with a house “as a form of humanitarian assistance.”

Okto Betera said in an interview he would ask the police to release the video of the incident to the family. The Boven Digoel police chief, Syamsurijal, said that if the family asked to see the CCTV video, then the police would allow them to see it.

“[They] can see it, but [they] can’t ask to take it,” Syamsurijal told us by phone. “Because this is still being investigated.”

Emanuel, of LBH Papua, said that if the police refused to disclose the video, it would “raise our suspicions that there’s an intention to bury the case.”

“We know that there are many cases of impunity in Papua,” he said. “And as law enforcers, like us advocates and the police, it’s very unprofessional if our mission is to bury [the facts] because that will deny justice for the victim.”

Veronica Koman, the human rights lawyer, said releasing the video could help ensure the investigation is pursued properly.

“In cases in Papua, from past experience they always end in impunity, and many investigations are not completed,” she said. “If it is opened to the public it will encourage more transparency in the process of investigating the case, [but] that is precisely why I doubt the police are willing to disclose it.”

“Papuan Lives Matter”

The release of videos of police violence has played a central role in the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and the rising clamour for radical reform to end impunity.

The movement has resonated among indigenous Papuans, who are an ethnic minority in Indonesia, and who have seen parallels of their own experience in the systemic racism and police violence to which black Americans have been subjected.

After anti-racism protests emerged in Papua in late 2019, indigenous people rallied around the slogan “Papuan Lives Matter”.

The circulation of videos of incidents of police violence has been fundamental to challenging early narratives of how events unfolded. Notably, when a 46-year-old African American man named George Floyd died this May, two weeks after Marius Betera, police initially claimed the cause of death had been a “medical emergency”.

Shortly after, bystander video emerged of a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck, giving rise to protests across the U.S.

In previous cases in the U.S., the police have argued that they cannot release video for privacy reasons or because it would jeopardise an investigation. But Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, who has worked extensively on cases involving police body cameras, said the most important consideration is that the public is able to see “how public servants who are authorised to use force on behalf of the state are using that force.”

“The public interest in the release of that information could not be higher,” he said in an interview.

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