Indonesian court acquits official in human trafficking case over human rights concerns

Indonesian court acquits official in human trafficking case over human rights concerns

An Indonesian court has acquitted a former government official accused of human trafficking after people were found in cages near his palm oil plantation, a decision the country’s human rights watchdog said Tuesday signaled impunity for state actors.

Prosecutors have vowed to appeal a ruling Monday by judges in a North Sumatra court that former regional official Terbit Rencana Perangin Angin was not guilty of charges including human trafficking, torture, forced labor and slavery. The grisly scandal in the world’s largest palm oil producing country first erupted in 2022 when police investigating the government official for corruption discovered people being held in cages on his property.

According to court documents, a police investigation found that 665 people had been held in cells with iron bars on his property since 2010. The acquittal was unfair, said Anis Hidayah of the Indonesian Human Rights Commission.

“This judgment shows that there is impunity when one of the perpetrators is a state actor,” she said. “It also undermines the sense of justice.” Prosecutors will appeal, said Yos A Tarigan, a spokesman for the regional attorney general’s office.

Terbit’s lawyer could not immediately be reached, but speaking outside court on Monday, he thanked the judges who released him, media reported. The former regional chief, who was jailed for nine years on corruption charges in 2022, had previously said those detained were taking part in a drug rehabilitation program.

But prosecutors said they were tortured and forced to work on his plantation, and court documents show three of them died on the spot. An environmental investigation group, Project Gecko, later found the plantation had supplied palm oil to major global brands.

In 2022, eight people were convicted of first-degree murder and assault in the case and sentenced to up to three years in prison, according to local media. (Writing: Kate Lamb; Editing: Clarence Fernandez)

(Disclaimer: With contributions from agencies.)