The Indonesian stadium stampede that left 131 people dead has sparked anger at the nation’s police, whom critics have long accused of using excessive violence.
Police, who described the unrest on Saturday night as “riots,” said they tried to force supporters to return to the stands and fired tear gas after they invaded the pitch.
However, survivors — who described the police as wielding batons and firing tear gas at helpless spectators — accuse them of overreacting, which led to a crush that became one of the deadliest disasters in soccer history.
Indonesia’s police force has, with the military, been involved for decades in suppressing dissent, quelling riots, crushing radical Islamist groups and anchoring a bloody fight against separatists. The police force has grown in power as an institution used for the security of the state since the fall of Indonesia’s military dictatorship in the late 1990s.
Data reviewed by Agence France-Presse shows a force heavily armed and funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars for tactical riot equipment since Indonesian President Joko Widodo came to power in 2014.
Spending on crowd control tactical gear — batons, tear gas, gas masks, shields and vehicles — has jumped in the past few years, according to figures collected by Andri Prasetiyo, a researcher at nongovernmental organization Trend Asia who analyzes government purchases.
They have spent close to US$250 million in less than a decade, he said, to kit out officers who use what experts say is often excessive force.
In 2014, the national police spent US$6 million on tear gas. This year, that figure rose to US$10 million. In the period between, it spent more than US$68 million on tear gas.
In the province of East Java, where the tragedy in the city of Malang occured, police spent US$3.2 million on batons in January alone.
“They use our tax money to kill us,” Prasetiyo said.
The nine elite officers suspended after the incident remain under investigation and come from a unit notorious for its aggressive crowd control tactics. All are commanders in the Mobile Brigade Corps, or Brimob, a unit that acts as the special operations paramilitary unit for the Indonesian police force.
Since the election of Widodo, they have been used to crush government opponents, activists say. Their coffers have since been heavily buffeted to militarize the force.
“In the past the most brutal force in the military were the special forces. I think they [Brimob] are now getting more notoriously known as a special force of the military,” Amnesty International Indonesia director Usman Hamid said.
Indonesia’s Commission for Disappeared and Victims of Violence, or Kontras, recorded 677 incidents of violence by police between July last year and June that left 59 people dead and 928 injured.
In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, such incidents spiked. In 2018 to 2019, Kontras recorded 643 cases of violence, while it recorded 921 cases the following year.
“The police feel like they are above the law and can do anything they deem necessary,” said Ardi Manto Adiputra, deputy director of human rights group Imparsial.
Many Indonesians fear this cycle of violence will never end without punishment for officers.
A key problem in bringing them to justice is little oversight inside or outside the force and close ties between the police and the government, Kontras coordinator Fatia Maulidiyanti said.
Experts say Widodo has helped place police allies in key positions after the force supported his most recent election bid, and the officers’ presence within the Indonesian elite is blurring the lines.
It means little action is taken against officers who commit alleged crimes, Maulidiyanti said.
“The sanctions against guilty officers are not fair or just. They are rarely brought to the criminal court,” she said.
Transparency International ranks the national police force as one of the most corrupt institutions in Indonesia.
Mochamad Iriawan, the president of Indonesia’s soccer association — which has refused to criticize the police for the stampede — is the former police chief of Jakarta.
The country’s intelligence chief was deputy of the national police force, and the head of the country’s anti-graft commission was chief of the national police’s security maintenance agency.
“If we don’t do something, I think Indonesia is going to become a police state,” Hamid said.
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