Indonesians are shocked and angered by reports that children accused of petty crimes have been arrested and beaten by the police.
In Soe City in eastern Indonesia, a 16-year-old boy was arrested and charged with stealing and selling eight pink adeniums from a private garden. In the Central Sulawesi capital of Palu, a 15-year-old boy identified as only A.A.L. was beaten by the police and faced a possible five-year jail sentence after he was accused of stealing a pair of used sandals owned by a policeman. In Bali, a teenager was convicted for stealing a wallet containing 1,000 rupiah (11 cents). In Cilacap, Central Java, two men were charged with stealing 15 banana bunches. Deli Suhandi, a 14-year-old boy accused of stealing a phone card worth 10,000 rupiah ($1.12) that he found lying in the street, could face a seven-year prison term.
The initial reaction of many people was to condemn the unnecessary violence employed by the police in apprehending the teenage suspects. Subsequently, symbolic protests were organized by ordinary citizens in front of police stations, courts, and even local parliament buildings across the country. In Soe, 1,000 pink adeniums were deposited by protesters in front of the police station to show support for the young flower thief. Meanwhile, children’s rights activists have began collecting coins to highlight the case of the wallet teenage thief in Bali. In Cilacap, the Muhammadiyah Students Association has launched a campaign that aims to gather 1,000 bananas and demand the freedom of the banana thieves.
But the action that has gained global attention is the “sandal protest,” which saw thousands of ordinary Indonesians throwing worn-out sandals in front of police stations all over the country. The protest was successful and the boy was returned to his parents without receiving a prison term.
The widespread protests reflect the people’s outrage over the human rights abuses suffered by the juvenile offenders and the unfair treatment of the poor by the police. The issue reinforced the perception that policemen are harsh to petty criminals but lenient to big time law violators, especially corrupt public officials. The protests are no longer simply about children’s rights, but also the injustices experienced by the poor.
The protests have the potential to develop into a genuine grassroots movement that could inspire and empower the poor to demand for more democratic reforms in the country. Instead of dismissing the localized actions, the government should be ready to address some of the reasonable demands of the protesters. For example, the passage of Juvenile Court legislation and the adoption of a restorative justice approach in dealing with young delinquents. The president should also order law enforcers to undergo human rights training and review standard procedures for apprehending suspected criminals.
If the police desire the community’s support for the campaign against criminality, they must first erase a reputation of giving rich criminals preferential treatment while condemning the poor to face the full force of the law. Ultimately they need to fulfill their duty as upholders of justice.