Freeport killings spark clamp-down on human rights defenders

Down to Earth No 55  November 2002

Human rights workers, witnesses, their families and friends are coming under intense pressure following the August 31st killings of three people near the Freeport/Rio Tinto mine in West Papua.

The three victims - one Indonesian and two Americans - were killed when gunmen opened fire on the school bus that was taking them back to the mining town of Tembagapura. Twelve others were reported injured in the attack. The army, who claimed to have shot dead one of the attackers the following day, immediately blamed the attack on the Free Papua Movement (OPM). However, investigations by the human rights organisation ELSHAM and the Amungme tribal council LEMASA, pointed to the involvement of the Indonesian military itself. Their conclusions, which were made public on September 25th, were partly based on interviews with Freeport employees and lengthy interviews with a witness who had worked with the military special forces, Kopassus, and claimed he had been in a vehicle with Kopassus members before the ambush.

During September there were two further shooting incidents near the mine and a bomb was discovered under a bridge.

ELSHAM's conclusions were widely reported in the international media and have been backed by recent press reports citing Papuan police, FBI investigators and western diplomatic sources. The military has been thrown on the defensive and has lashed out angrily at ELSHAM. Following ELSHAM's September 25th press conference, the armed forces chief General Endriartono Sutarto threatened to sue the organisation. Telephone warnings have been made to ELSHAM staff; their office in Jayapura is under surveillance by unknown people and activists in Mimika say they have been followed and monitored. Human rights workers were also subjected to intimidation during the investigation itself. On September 16th, residents at one village visited by ELSHAM and LEMASA investigators threatened to kill the team members, having apparently been primed by Indonesian military personnel the day before. One member of the team decided to leave the Timika area after a motorbike attempted to run her over. In October, intruders broke into ELSHAM's Jakarta office and stole documents and computer disks belonging to the organisation.

These incidents are reminiscent of the campaign of intimidation against ELSHAM during its investigation into the role of the Indonesian military in the killing of pro-independence leader Theys Eluay in November 2001.

ELSHAM, other West Papua-based human rights organisations and local religious leaders have called for an independent investigation into the Freeport killings, by the US as well as Indonesia. ELSHAM insists that the investigations should not focus on the individuals involved, but on the decisions and state policies behind the incident. "Unless the policies of the State and Freeport Security are investigated, human rights violations and attacks of this nature will continue."

Amnesty International has launched an urgent action (see calling for measures to guarantee the safety of ELSHAM staff and other human rights activists and witnesses and for an investigation into the threats, followed by appropriate action against those responsible. The third international solidarity meeting on West Papua, held in London in October called on the UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders to open a dialogue with the Indonesian government about the protection of ELSHAM and LEMASA.



ELSHAM sees the attack as a strategy to protect military income as well as a justification for strong and violent action against the OPM. Freeport/Rio Tinto's payments to the military for security operations at the mine have drawn severe criticism over the years. The mine's military security guards have a long history of human rights abuses against the local population, which includes torture, detention in inhumane conditions, killings and disappearances. According to the US-based organisation, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, more than 150 cases of individual killings of indigenous people in and around the mine have been recorded since the 1970s, with hundreds more additional deaths from illness and injury due to forced relocation and military attacks. During this time, Freeport has paid tens of millions of dollars to the Indonesian military. In 1996, Freeport was asked by the military to pay US$100 million towards a bigger garrison. The company reportedly agreed to pay US$35 million, supplemented by an annual US$11 million. These payments followed a riot at Tembagapura, believed to have been provoked by the military in order to extort money from Freeport. (ICG & RFK reports, 2002, quoting Lesley McCulloch - see box below).

Australian academic Tim Flannery has linked the August shootings to a new corporate fraud law in the US, prompted by the Enron collapse, which tightens up the accounting practices of large US companies. This means that Freeport may have to cut its payments to the Indonesian military in order to comply with the new law. According to Flannery, "'s been alleged that has caused conflict between the Indonesian military and the Freeport mine because ..the money that they've been getting now for 30 odd years…has stopped…" (Radio Australia transcript, 19/Sep/02).

Such reports point to the underlying structural problem of military funding. Only 25% of the military's budget is believed to come from the government - the rest comes from business activities like logging, mining and security contracts. This means that all major projects in Indonesia - and especially those in conflict areas like Aceh and West Papua - are under pressure to pay for military protection. The police special forces, Brimob, are also notorious for extorting money from companies. BP, whose Tangguh gas project is scheduled to start construction next year, has publicly stated its intention to keep the military out of the project area. In the current political climate, made worse by the Bali bombs, it is hard to see how this position will be maintained.

According to Amnesty, "International and national companies operating in West Papua have a responsibility to ensure that the security forces they engage do not have a history of human rights violations and are trained in human rights standards…They should also ensure that their operations do not have a negative impact on the human rights of the local population and should actively monitor investigations and press for their proper resolution." (AI 26/Sep/02)

The International Crisis Group, whose September report considers Tangguh as well as Freeport, recommends that "resource companies, and the governments that back their activities, need to consider whether it is wise or ethical to invest in Papua until there are signs that the conflict is moving towards resolution." (ICG, 2002).

(Source: Letter from 3rd International Solidarity Meeting on West Papua, 6 October 2002; ELSHAM 26/Sep/02; Amnesty International 26/Sep/02; AFX-Asia 27/Sep/02; Tapol 1/Oct/02; AFP 8/Oct/02; Radio Australia transcript 19/Sep/02; Australian Financial Review 18/Sep/02; Letter from religious leaders in West Papua to President Megawati 7/Sep/02, Australian 28/Oct/02 and others.)


15% for local government

The violence and intimidation surrounding the August shootings does not appear to have put the Papuan provincial government off a plan to gain shares in the mine. According to governor Jaap Salossa, Freeport CEO James Moffett approved the Papuan government's plan to acquire 15% of Freeport shares, during a meeting in the US in September. Salossa said that the Papuan local government and Freeport had agreed to form a team to prepare for the purchase of the shares. He said the issue would be discussed with the provincial assembly. (Antara 1/Oct/02 via Joyo Indonesia News)


Pollution warning

In early August, the governor delivered a letter to Freeport asking the company to deal immediately with pollution problems threatening the health of thousands of local people living downstream of the mine. According to the head of the local environment agency, Bapedalda, the letter was sent following an instruction from Jakarta's environment minister, Nabiel Makarim (and not the governor himself - who is keen on securing the shareholding agreement).

The company was asked, among other things, to speed up its reclamation work from 75 ha per year to 150 ha per year.

If estimates of the damage actually done by the tailings are correct, these demands are far too modest. Tailings from the Freeport/Rio Tinto mine are carried by the local river system to a 130 square km "deposition area" south of the mine, where they are estimated to have damaged almost 36,000 hectares in the coastal plain. Environmental NGO WALHI has estimated that a further 84,000 hectares offshore in the Arafura Sea is affected. Last August WALHI scored a landmark victory in its legal action against Freeport, when a Jakarta court ordered the company to reform its waste management system and ruled that the company had deliberately misled the public (see DTE 51).

(Jakarta Post 1/Aug/02; Asia Pulse/Antara via Joyo Indonesia News received 2/Oct/02)

Publications on Freeport
  • Abigail Abrash, Development Aggression, Observation on Human Rights Conditions in the PT Freeport Indonesia Contract of Work Areas With Recommendations, Robert F Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, July 2002. See
  • International Crisis Group, Indonesia: Resources and Conflict in Papua, September 2002: contains section on Freeport.
  • Denise Leith, The Politics of Power: Freeport in Suharto's Indonesia: contact Gleebooks for more details and launch event in Australia, Nov/2002.
  • Abigail Abrash and Danny Kennedy, 'Repressive Mining in West Papua', in MPI, Moving Mountains: Communities Confront Mining and Globalisation', Otford Press, Australia & Zed Books, UK, September 2001.
  • Lesley McCulloch: Trifungsi: The Role of the Indonesian Military in Business, October 2000. See