Two Acquittals and One 18-Month Sentence in Indonesia Soccer Disaster

The defendants, all police officers, were charged with criminal negligence in connection with the October stampede that killed 135 people.

A cloud of tear gas floats into the stands of a sports stadium as attendees scatter to avoid it. On the field is a crowd of security personnel in neon yellow vests or camouflage fatigues.
Police officers fired dozens of rounds of tear gas in a soccer stadium in Malang, Indonesia, on Oct. 1, an investigation found. The stampede that followed left 135 people dead.Credit...Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Sui-Lee Wee and

A court in Indonesia sentenced a police officer to 18 months in prison and acquitted two other officers on Thursday in connection with the deaths of 135 people in a stampede at a soccer stadium, one of the worst disasters in the sport’s history.

The scale of the tragedy in October in the city of Malang — which happened after the police fired dozens of rounds of tear gas into the crowd — stunned Indonesia and offered a searing reminder of the brutal methods often meted out by the country’s police, many of whom are poorly trained in crowd control. To many Indonesians, the stampede was a clear example of the wanton use of force.

A judge in Surabaya, where the trial was held, found Hasdarmawan, a former company commander of a mobile brigade with the East Java police, guilty of criminal negligence causing death, sentencing him to 18 months in prison. Bambang Sidik Achmadi, the former head of the Malang police’s rapid response unit, and Wahyu Setyo Pranoto, the former head of operations of the Malang police, were both acquitted, and the judge ordered their immediate release.

All three officers had been charged with criminal negligence causing death, which carries a maximum prison term of five years. Prosecutors had asked for a three-year sentence for each defendant.

“I’m so disappointed,” said Wiyanto, 52, a driver in Malang whose 21-year-old son died in the stampede. “I’m very tired of this. This is about lives. I want them to be punished in the fairest way possible. Even someone who steals a chicken can be jailed for a year.”

The verdicts bring the criminal prosecutions from the disaster — the second deadliest in the history of soccer, after a similar 1964 incident in Peru, which killed more than 300 — to a close. Last week, a court sentenced a match organizer to 18 months in prison and a stadium security official to a year, both for criminal negligence. Family members of victims filed an appeal of those sentences, which they saw as grossly inadequate.

Andi Irfan, a lawyer representing the family members of 11 victims, said some of the family members became emotional after hearing the decision on Thursday. “They are crying, asking: ‘Where is justice today in Indonesia?’” he said. Mr. Andi said he planned to challenge the proceedings through Indonesia’s Judicial Commission.

A soccer match organizer and a stadium security official during their trial last week in Surabaya, Indonesia, in connection with the disaster. Both were sentenced to prison.Credit...Juni Kriswanto/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Oct. 1 stampede occurred after a soccer game between two rival soccer clubs, Arema F.C. and Persebaya Surabaya, devolved into chaos. After angry fans descended onto the field, the police fired tear gas not only at them, but at fans in the stands.

Video footage showed hordes of people rushing for the exits, only to find many of the gates locked. Witnesses said they saw hundreds crushed by others scrambling in the chaos.

An investigation by Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights found that the police had fired 45 rounds of tear gas — a substance banned by FIFA, soccer’s governing body, as a method of crowd control — into the stands.

Imam Hidayat, a lawyer representing other victims, said he filed a police report requesting the charges against the defendants be changed to murder and premeditated murder. But no progress has been made.

Lawyers and rights groups have pointed to irregularities in the police officers’ trial, chief among them having the police investigate a case involving their own colleagues. The lawyer representing the defendants is himself a police officer. The defense was allowed to call 11 witnesses from the police who testified about the threatening behavior of fans, while the court heard an account from only one survivor of the disaster.

During the trial, members of the mobile brigade, a special operations and paramilitary branch of the police force, heckled and jeered at prosecutors. In a statement, Indonesia’s Legal Aid Institute, an independent nonprofit body, and several other civil society groups called that “a clear abuse of power” meant to intimidate the prosecutors.

After the disaster, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, authorized a payment of roughly $3,240 to each victim’s family and ordered an audit of all stadiums in the country.

He also ordered that the Malang stadium be torn down and rebuilt and called for the suspension of all competitive soccer games. Matches resumed in other stadiums in January.