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Haris Azhar: Defending human rights

Sumber: THEJAKARTAPOST | Tgl terbit: Jumat, 12 April 2013

Haris Azhar is not an ordinary person.

As the chairman of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), he is ready for the worst, including accusations related to his work as a human rights defender in Indonesia.\

“When Kontras rejects the death penalty, people think we are on the drug dealer’s side. When we defend Papua and Aceh, people think we support separatism, and now when we defend Cebongan’s detainees who were killed in the prison people think we support thugs,” Haris told The Jakarta Post during an interview in his office on Jl. Borobudur in Jakarta.

Kontras does not support drug dealers, thugs or separatism. The institution is trying to uphold the human rights of the less fortunate, as all living creatures have the right to life and live free from torture.

“We know that Kontras is hated and loved. The fact is, we are the only front-line defending institution on this issue,” Haris said.

He is an expert on human rights, completing his Master’s degree in human rights at Sussex University in Britain in 2008.

Only a select few know that Haris was interested in human rights issues since he was a student at Trisakti University majoring in law in 1993. He was frequently involved in discussions with lecturers Aji Santoso and Andre Sudjatmoko, who were the students of professor Haryo Mataram, the first professor of humanitarian law in Indonesia.

From those discussions, young Haris became interested in learning about human rights more comprehensively even though he knew that the issue was difficult during the Soeharto era.

The turning point for him was in 1998 when he saw how the military treated students during demonstrations at Trisakti and Semanggi on May 12, 1998.

At that time he realized that human rights abuses were not only happening in areas like Aceh and Papua but also right in front of his eyes. He realized he had to do something.

“I started visiting the Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation [YLBHI] and Indonesia Corruption Watch [ICW] to grab some pamphlets on Soeharto’s crimes. I joined mass demonstrations and discussions. I was very busy and often spent the night at YLBHI without going home for days,” he recalled, smiling.

In 1999, Haris, who loves futsal, returned to campus and resumed his education. After securing his bachelor’s degree he decided to be a lawyer. The choices were to work either at Kontras in Aceh or at ICW as a lawyer.

The plan changed after he met the late human rights activist Munir. Munir, who was allegedly poisoned with arsenic on board a Garuda Indonesia plane in 2004, said there was a vacant position at Kontras.

“Munir asked me to join Kontras. The institution needed a lawyer and I agreed to apply,” the 38-year-old said with a smile.

Haris’s first day at Kontras was Nov. 7, 1999. He was excited even though the finance manager forgot to put him on the salary list. As a consequence, Haris did not get his first paycheck.

He was then paid Rp 12,500 (US$1.30) a day for almost seven months.

“In 2000 my salary was Rp 560,000. But this was not about money because at Kontras I met many people dedicated to human rights. I am proud of being one of them,” the man who loves heavy metal music said.

At Kontras there is a close connection between the institution and people who are looking for justice. They are like family because finding justice in Indonesia requires time and patience.

Many of the victims who were young then have become old and have white hair as they still cannot find justice.

“Some of them have died,” he said.

Kontras believes that people in Indonesia should keep up the struggle for almost-forgotten cases.  

“If the government cannot solve the human right cases, certain people in power will do similar things as they [see] they are free from punishment,” he said.

During his leadership of Kontras since 2010, the organization has won two human rights awards: the Emilio F. Mignone award from Argentina and an award from the Asia Muslim Advocacy Network for promoting human rights in Muslim countries.

Haris acknowledged that working at Kontras was not easy. For instance, in 2002 the Kontras office on Jl. Mendut was attacked by an unidentified mob. The tragedy happened after Haris and several victims’ families visited General Wiranto’s house to meet with Wiranto’s wife.

“I was the leader of the delegation. We gave Wiranto’s wife some flowers and a letter asking that the general attend a hearing held by Komnas HAM [National Commission on Human Rights] related to the Semanggi and Trisakti tragedies,” he said.

Haris was about to call the police when he saw Munir enter the office to inform him about the coming mob.

“I asked him ‘So what can we do Cak?” Munir said “Life is about choices and we have chosen this job, so we have to be prepared for all consequences,’” Haris recalled.

According to Haris, Munir made similar statements to many, but as their situation was fragile, Haris remembers it to this day.

“Even my mom says that I have to be ready for all consequences, and the idea provides me with support,” he added.

After years of reformation, the youngest of four siblings says that human rights implementation in Indonesia is now more backward, even though the country has a human rights commission and supported regulations.

The situation was totally different in the era of the country’s third president Abdurrahman Wahid or Gus Dur, who took human rights seriously and created an ombudsman and the human rights commission Komnas HAM to support human rights implementation in the country.

“People can define human rights depending on their interests. No wonder the situation with human rights implementation became so chaotic because the interests bump up against each other,” Haris, whose idols are Mahatma Gandhi and the Prophet Muhammad, said.

He added that Indonesia needs political will from the government to create a boundary in order to avoid freely defining human rights.

“The government should make a strict boundary so it will be clear what is allowed and not,” the fan of Pramudya Ananta Toer said.

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