One year after deadly fan crush at Indonesia football stadium, families still seek justice

A year has passed slowly for Devi Athok, an Indonesian man whose two teenage daughters died in a crush of fans at a football stadium in East Java last October after police fired tear gas, setting off a panicked run for the exits that left 135 people dead.

The crowd surge in Kanjuruhan stadium in Malang city was among the world’s worst sporting tragedies. Some 43 children died and around 580 people were injured in the incident.

Chaos broke out after Persebaya Surabaya defeated Arema Malang 3-2 in the October 1, 2022 match in front of some 42,000 spectators, prompting police to fire tear gas, including toward the stadium’s stands, causing panic among the crowd.

People mourn in front of portraits of victims of a football stadium crush a year ago after attending a memorial service in Malang, East Java, Indonesia on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Athok had bought four tickets for the Saturday night match for his two daughters, his ex-wife and her new husband. His 13-year-old daughter, Naila Debi Anggraini, decided to join her family at the last minute. She died in the crush along with her older sister, 16-year-old Natasya Debi Ramadani, and their mother, Geby Asta Putri, 37.

In the year since the incident, Indonesia has convicted five of six suspects who were charged with negligence leading to the deaths of 135 people. Investigations have been conducted both by police and an independent team set up by Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Two police officers who were initially acquitted by the Surabaya Court were later handed prison sentences by the Supreme Court. One was sentenced to two years and the other was sentenced to two and a half years. The former East Java Police mobile brigade commander was found guilty and sentenced to a year and a half in prison, and the football club’s former security officer was sentenced to one year.

But some relatives of the victims say the punishments do not go far enough and continue to fight for justice.

Indonesian football officials jailed over deadly stampede

Athok said there have been irregularities in the narrative of what happened and that he has experienced intimidation since he started speaking out about the deaths of his daughters.

He said police told him his daughters did not die from tear gas – which was the conclusion reached by the independent investigation team – but from a blunt object blow to the chest that broke their ribs.

“At the trial, police said there was a brawl between fans even though there were no Persebaya supporters at the stadium. This is a public lie. We are being fooled,” said Athok, wearing a T-shirt showing the faces of his daughters. On the back is a photo of himself praying and the words: “Rest in peace in heaven, my daughters. Your father is fighting for justice for you.”

“I want to fight legally, seek justice for the death of my daughters. If you ask if I have sincerely accepted what happened, yes, I sincerely do. They are dead, they won’t come back. But under the law, I seek justice against the killer of my two daughters,” he said.

Amnesty International Indonesia, on the one-year anniversary of the deadly incident, called on the Indonesia government to investigate and bring to justice all who were responsible.

Arema FC supporters run on the pitch towards members of the Indonesian army after a football match between Arema FC and Persebaya at the Kanjuruhan stadium in Malang, East Java, Indonesia on October 1, 2022. Photo: AFP

“The legal process related to the security forces who fired tear gas has not yet reached their leaders at the command level. This is unacceptable, and the families of the victims who died and those who were injured deserve proper justice and accountability,” said Usman Hamid, the Executive Director of Amnesty International Indonesia, in a statement.

The rights organisation also called for an evaluation into the use of excessive force, including tear gas. The crowd surge in Kanjuruhan highlighted the dangers of using tear gas in crowds, it said.

The government began renovation work at Kanjuruhan stadium in September, disappointing the families of victims.

“Kanjuruhan stadium is a crime scene and evidence, and should not be removed yet. It is fine to demolish it if this problem is resolved. But the problem is not resolved yet,” said Rizal Putra Pratama, who lost his father and younger brother because of the stampede. They were among the spectators supporting football club, Arema Malang.

Indonesian football doesn’t need tear gas – or a toxic fan culture

Pratama not only lost his father and his younger brother, but in the next 28 days he lost his 13-year-old younger sister Cahaya Meida Salsabila, who was being treated for dengue fever. He said her condition weakened because she could not accept her father’s and brother’s tragic deaths, he said.

He said the family has not received justice after one year. “I will continue to fight legally as I should, and I demand justice which I have not received at all, because I lost my father and my younger siblings. Until I die, I will continue to fight,” Pratama said.

Even though the stadium has been closed and people cannot access the gates where the deadly crush took place, many still gathered outside to pray for the victims of the crowd surge.

On Sunday, some of the relatives still seeking justice, their faces filled with sorrow, were among those in front of the stadium. They wore black and showed the photographs of the victims.

“Refuse to forget,” said the text on their shirts.

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