SINGAPORE — After years of battling Indonesia's government and military over human rights, activist Munir Said Thalib headed to the Netherlands to study law. He left Jakarta on Sept. 6 and changed planes here for the long haul to Amsterdam.
By the time the flight landed, he was dead.
Two months later, Dutch authorities disclosed that the 38-year-old activist had been poisoned with arsenic. Munir's distraught friends say they believe he was poisoned on the 90-minute Garuda Indonesia airlines flight to Singapore by someone who slipped arsenic into his food or drink and then vanished.
Munir's death has devastated Indonesia's human rights community. He was one of the country's foremost activists, a fearless advocate who stood up to the military government of former President Suharto and continued to challenge the military after the strongman's fall in 1998.
His supporters question why it has taken so long for authorities in the Netherlands and Indonesia to identify the cause of death and to begin looking for the killer. A team of Indonesian investigators arrived in Amsterdam last week, and Suyitno Landung, head of Indonesia's criminal investigation department, acknowledged in Jakarta that the inquiry was just beginning.
Some of Munir's friends wonder why the airline chose not to make an emergency landing to obtain medical assistance after Munir became ill early in the 13-hour flight to Amsterdam.
"Munir's assassination is an evil crime that strikes not only at the victim and his loved ones but is also a warning to the human rights community in Indonesia, a crime intended to make human rights activists throughout Indonesia fear for their own safety," said a statement signed by 59 rights activists in 27 countries associated with the Right Livelihood Award. The prize, sometimes called the alternative Nobel, was awarded to Munir in 2000.
The apparent slaying has prompted calls for the reexamination of the deaths of two prominent officials: Atty. Gen. Baharuddin Lopa, who died three years ago, and prosecutor Mohammed Yamin, who died in April.
Both were known as honest men who took on cases involving powerful and allegedly corrupt figures. Both died suddenly while traveling -- Lopa in Saudi Arabia and Yamin in Bali -- and both deaths were attributed to heart attacks. Family members were suspicious at the time because not all the symptoms were consistent with heart attacks, but neither body was autopsied.
In Munir's case, suspicion immediately fell on hard-line elements of the military. As founder and head of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, also known as Kontras, Munir investigated the disappearance of people in Aceh province and East Timor, allegedly at the hands of the armed forces.
He also had been conducting an investigation into corruption at the time of his death.
On Saturday, Munir's widow, Suciwati, who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name, received a bag of chicken parts. A note warned her not to blame his death on the military or she would end up like the chicken. She made the note public but warned against jumping to conclusions about who was behind Munir's killing.
Newly elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met Wednesday night with Munir's widow, expressed his condolences and promised an independent investigation into the killing. The former general, who had just returned from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Chile, said he would make the case a top priority for his administration.
Munir received frequent warnings and death threats over the years but shrugged them off. Last year, explosives were thrown at his house. Months earlier, a mob attacked his office.
"He was never bothered by threats," said his friend and colleague Usman Hamid, who now heads Kontras. "He had a principle that terror does not exist except in your mind. He did not want to talk publicly about the threats he received because he knew it would spread the fear to the others."
Hamid, reached by telephone in the Netherlands, where he is representing the family in the police inquiry, said he feared that the slowness of the investigation had given the perpetrators time to destroy incriminating evidence.
Hamid said the autopsy showed a massive amount of arsenic in Munir's system, indicating that he died within hours of being poisoned. "It could be anyone, but certainly somebody near him, maybe sitting next to him in the plane," Hamid said.
According to accounts of Munir's final hours, his wife saw him off at the airport and he appeared to be OK. He was supposed to fly economy class but was offered a seat in business class for the flight to Singapore under circumstances that remain unclear. He was served a meal during the flight, and friends suspect that was when the odorless, colorless poison was slipped into his food or drink.