Indonesian court acquits ex-regent accused of caging, torturing people on his plantation

Pizaro Gozali Idrus
2024.07.09
Jakarta
Indonesian court acquits ex-regent accused of caging, torturing people on his plantation People are seen locked in a cage on the property of Terbit Rencana Perangin-angin, the then-regent of Langkat in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, Jan. 24, 2022.
[Photo courtesy Migrant Care]

Indonesian human rights groups on Tuesday condemned the acquittal of an ex-regent charged with slavery and torture after dozens of people were found caged on his plantation, saying the ruling showed that state officials still enjoy impunity for serious crimes.

Terbit Rencana Perangin-Angin, the ex-official who is under U.S. sanctions, gained notoriety in January 2022 when anti-graft investigators discovered 57 people caged and allegedly abused on his palm oil plantation in North Sumatra province. 

The prosecution had demanded that Terbit, the ex-regent of Langkat, be given a 14-year prison sentence. But on Monday, a provincial district court said it was not convinced that he had been hand-in-glove with his eight employees who were convicted in 2022 of murder in the same case, after police found that four people had died in the cages from 2010 to 2021.

Terbit, though, is already behind bars, where he has been serving a nine-year sentence for corruption since 2022. Still, upon hearing Monday’s verdict, he prostrated himself in gratitude before presiding judge Andriansyah, who goes by one name.

This ruling in favor of Terbit, who was also charged with human trafficking and forced labor (on his plantation), sets an alarming precedent, said Anis Hidayah, the president of Indonesia’s Human Right Commission (Komnas HAM), an independent state institution.

“The court ruling resulted in … a crime without punishment, and this is dangerous because it can happen repeatedly so it does not have a deterrent effect,” she told BenarNews on Tuesday.

“We deeply regret the verdict that acquitted the former regent of Langkat, despite strong allegations of him being the main perpetrator in the human trafficking case involving a human cage.”

The ruling had failed to deliver justice to the victims and the public, said Irvan Saputra, director of the North Sumatra Legal Aid Institute.

He noted that the maximum prison sentence under the Human Trafficking Law was 15 years and the prosecution had sought close to that number.

“This indicates the prosecutor’s strong conviction that the former regent of Langkat was indeed involved in the crime,” Irvan told BenarNews.

“It is rare … to seek the maximum penalty, missing the highest possible sentence by just one year, which is 15 years.”

ID-TWO.jpg
Terbit Rencana Perangin-Angin, the now ex-chief of Langkat regency in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, is seen being inaugurated as regent in this 2019 image. [Courtesy website of the government of Langkat regency]

The prosecution plans to appeal the ruling before the Supreme Court, said Yos Arnold Tarigan, spokesman at the North Sumatra prosecutor’s office.

“We will stick to the charges,” Yos told BenarNews.

Komnas HAM’s Anis noted that while eight of Terbit’s employees were sentenced to three years in prison in 2022, they were merely supporting actors. Terbit, she alleged, was the brain behind the operation.

“He owned the house, designed the human cage, and exploited people under the guise of drug rehabilitation. Komnas HAM’s findings revealed that some victims even died,” Anis said.

Back in 2022, Terbit had said that his residence housed drug addicts who were undergoing rehabilitation.

A police investigation after the anti-graft officials’ raid in January 2022 found that a total of 665 people had been held in the 36 square meters (387.5 square feet) of iron-barred cells on his property since 2010, the prosecution’s court documents said.

Komnas HAM in 2022 said it had found evidence of 26 forms of violence against the cage’s inhabitants, including rib beatings, orders to hang like monkeys, and hammer blows to the feet that caused victims’ nails to peel off. 

Anis said the acquittal would show the public that state actors, just as during the pre-1999 autocratic period, are spared punishment they deserve.

“In a country like Indonesia, which has declared itself independent for decades, it is troubling that modern slavery practices still occur in the home of a public official who should be protecting his citizens,” she said.

“In human trafficking cases, it is imperative for law enforcement to be firm, not only by imposing heavy sentences but also by ordering restitution for the victims who have suffered.”

In December, the U.S. State Department named Terbit  on its international list of “perpetrators of human rights abuses,” designating him for “his involvement in gross violations of human rights, namely the forced labor of boys and men.”

An environmental investigative group, the Gecko Project, also found that Terbit’s plantation had been supplying palm oil to big global firms.

‘It is horrifying’

However, the provincial district court’s presiding judge, Andriyansyah, said that the public prosecutor could not prove that Terbit and his now-convicted employees had been in cahoots.  

In addition to acquitting Terbit, the court also rejected the compensation or restitution of 2.3 billion rupiah (U.S. $142,000) for the victims as proposed by the public prosecutor. The judge also ordered that the seized palm oil plantation be immediately returned to Terbit.

“Freeing the defendant from all charges of the public prosecutor, restoring the defendant’s rights in his ability, as well as his dignity. Declaring the restitution request unacceptable,” Andriansyah said.

The conviction and sentencing of Terbit’s foot soldiers and his subsequent acquittal was bizarre, according to Ady Yoga Kemit, a member of  the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS) in North Sumatra.

“It is horrifying and defies common sense that the judge’s verdict absolved Terbit of all charges. This acquittal means that the victims’ recovery will not be fulfilled,” he told BenarNews.

“We are deeply disappointed with the judge’s decision, which fails to uphold a sense of justice and overlooks the facts of slavery in Terbit’s cage.”

Nazarudin Latif in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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