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Covid-19 testing used to muzzle human rights and environment activists

Screenshot of Bernard Marbun, one of the human rights activists from LBH Pers Samarinda, showing the result of the independent swab test which he received two days after he took the test on August 4, 2020. Source: WALHI Samarinda

August 24, 2020

By May Rahmadi

As personnel and officials from the Samarinda Municipal Health Office entered  the office of the East Kalimantan chapter of the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI), loud repeated shouts of “Take them away!” could be heard from outside the office.

It has remained unclear where those shouts came from. Inside the office, three human rights and environment activists were accused of being COVID-19 positive and were to be forcefully taken to isolation even though the three concerned did not feel any symptoms at all.

Executive Director of the East Kalimantan WALHI, Yohana Tiko, was one of the three allegedly infected. Tiko said she could not say with certainty whether the shouts came from residents around the office in Jalan Gitar, in the Prevab housing of the Dadi Mulya urban ward of Samarinda city in East Kalimantan.

“We could not know where these residents were from, because we were inside,” Tiko recalled when Ekuatorial contacted her on August 2.

Besides of Tiko, two other activists accused of being infected with the Covid-19 were public lawyer Fathul Huda Wiyashadi and Bernard Marbun from the Samarinda Legal Aid Institute (LBHI Samarinda). Even before the incident, the two also felt that there had been irregularities in the way the Covid19 issue had been handled and particularly applied to them.

It all started on Wednesday, July 29 when without any prior notice, the East Kalimantan Walhi Office was visited by personnel from the local health office. Without wearing any personal protective equipment and providing an assignment letter as they should have been, they immediately conducted swab tests on a number of activists from the Working Group 30 — an institution focused on advocacy related to public budgeting and policies, the East Kalimantan chapter of WALHI and LBH Samarinda.

These three organizations have been active in holding pro-democracy activities and their offices were located near to each other.

According to the Samarinda Health Office, the activity was part of an active case finding program to find out about the spread of Covid-19. To the East Kalimantan WALHI, the personnel said that the samplings were conducted randomly.

Tiko expressed surprise that he was also asked to take a swab test, as many other colleagues had already taken the tests. If the sampling was really taken randomly as they claimed, then not everyone needed to undergo the swab tests. “If the others have already taken the test, why should a swab be taken from me?” asked Tiko.

But because her organization is also committed to combat the Covid-19 virus, Tiko finally relented and agreed to undergo a swab test. She and her colleagues were then promised that they would get results of the tests in three to four days.

But on Thursday, July 30, personnel from the health office returned to Tiko’s office and sprayed disinfectant saying that three people were found positive of Covid-19. The three were named as Tiko and the two public lawyers from LBH Samarinda.

“Throughout the entire process, there had been no assignment letter produced at all,” she said, adding that “They also asked to enter our office accusing us of hiding people.”

The personnel from the health office then entered the office but found nothing. Tiko said that she had no clue as to the intentions of the health office personeel but added that she couldn’t help but feeling something strange is taking place.

Forced into isolation

On the afternoon of Friday, July 31, Tiko received a letter from the head of the local neighborhood that announced an objection to the presence of Tiko and the two other activists because they were said to be infected with Covid-19. Up until that time, Tiko and the two others still had not received any official result, or proof of their alleged infection.

“We, residents of Neighborhood Unit (RT) 33 in the Dadi Mulya Urban Ward, object and feel uncomfortable if there are residents that are infected with Corona,” the letter that was signed by the head of the Neighborhood Unit said. ‘Therefore, if there are residents that are infected by Corona, we want them to be treated and isolated at the hospital assigned by the government. As to self-quarantine, we reject that for the sake of other residents,” it added.

Towards the evening, security and health office personner came to take them to a hospital. It was at that time that shouts demanding them to be taken away were heard.

Tiko and her two friends were asked to undergo isolation at the I.A. Moeis general hospital in Samarinda and this request was made, once again without any proper documents. No assignment letters, no proof that the three were positive with Covid-19.

Tiko did try to defend her rights saying that if she was indeed infected but without showing any symptoms, then she should be allowed to undergo a self-quarantine but this was rejected by the personnel and a verbal debate ensued. Tiko finally chose to give up to prevent the situation from heating up further.

They decided to follow the protocol. They stepped onto the ambulance belonging to the Smarinda Disaster Mitigation Agency, they were then taken to the isolation ward of the I.A. Moeis, located about 14.9 kilometers from their office. The three had no clue as to why that particular hospital which was far from the office was chosen.

At the hospital, Tiko and her two friends demanded to see the results of their swab test but the staff at the isolation ward could not produce the document and argued that they were only doing what they were only told to place the three of them in an isolation ward.

“He said ‘just ask those who brought you here’,” Tiko quoted the isolation ward staff. Tiko said she refused to enter the isolation ward, concerned that if she is not infected, entering the isolation ward will only expose her to Covid-19.

The staff then gave them a letter stating that Tiko and her two friends refused to be put into isolation but Tiko also refused to sign the letter, arguing that she was not refusing to go into the isolation ward but wanted to first see the test result, proof of whether or not she was infected with COVID-19.

She also asked for the test result from those who took her and her two friends from the office to the hospital, to no avail.

Two hours into their time at the hospital, Tiko and her two colleagues then decided to go back to their respective homes and conduct self-isolation there. Although she had refused to go into the isolation ward, no one from the health office has attempted to contact her again.


Tiko believed that the disregard of protocol in the way she and her friends have been subjected COVID-19 swab test was closely related to the advocacy work they have been doing. The East Kalimantan WALHI and a number of civilian community groups there are currently protesting the Omnibus bills.

They are also opposed the new Mining Law.

The pandemic, she said, has been used by certain parties to not only allow smooth passage to passing problematic policies but also to criminalize human rights and environment defenders.

“Last July 16, we held an action to reject the Omnibus bills and the Spatial Zoning of the Coastal Area and Small Islands (RZWP3K) plan for East Kalimantan,” Tiko said, “We felt deceived, they said that there would be no hearing during the recess period, but it turned out to be a lie,” she said.

The plan to pass the Omnibus Law by the government has received much condemnation from the civilian society. The bills are deemed to contain many problems, including its substance and political dimension. The bill is also seen as favoring the political elites and oligarch and would leave the people in harm’s way.

Meanwhile the RZWP3K plan for East Kalimantan, was seen as ignoring the interest of fishermen. “We reject the RZWP3K because it does not protect the fishermen’s catching areas and converted the nature’s reserve into a harbor,” she said.

Wiyashadi and Marbun have also been involved in important cases. Wiyashadi is a public lawyer who is handing the oil spill pollution case in Balikpapan. The case, which saw a civil case through a citizen lawsuit, named the local government as the defendant. Marbun, meanwhile, was advocating an intimidation case in Lebak Cilong village where a number of local residents had been reported to the police by a company operating there.

The East Kalimantan WALHI has since issued a release explaining the anomalies in the handling of the Covid-19 issues in Samarinda. In the release, WALHI emphasized that what took place between July 29 to July 31 and affected Tiko, Wiyashadi, and Marbun was an effort to criminalize and muzzle human rights and environment activists.

“For us, these efforts can almost be classified as a ‘black operation’ by security and intelligence personnel, by making use of health examination through the Covid-19 swab tests,” the release said. “The aim is to forcefully and illegally take personal or group data of human rights and environment activists.”

In a press conference held on August 20, Bernard explained as they had never received the result of the swab test that was carried out without following the procedure, he decided to take independent swab test on August 4, and received the test results on August 6. The result came out negative.

“For me this is a lie and a criminal act because in accordance with Article 8 of the Health Law, I have the right to get the result of the swab test conducted by the health office (Samarinda City), but until now, I have not received the test result,” said Bernard.

Investigating the irregularities

The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) has received a report on this case and Human Rights Commissioner Chairul Anam said that his institution was already starting to look into these irregularities in the handling of COVID-19 in Samarinda as had been experienced by the three activists.

Anam said that initial information gathered by the commission indicated that there had been a number of serious problems. First, there were strong indications of violations of health protocols. The personnel from the Samarinda health office who conducted the swab tests were not wearing the required personal protective equipment.

Second, there was also indication that the process was forced on the individuals and the results of the swab tests, whether they were positive or not, were not informed to those concerned. Third, there were strong indication that the process was not aimed for medical purposes because it involved taking individuals to the hospital by force.

“From the information we have received so far, it’s important for Komnas HAM to follow up this report,” Anam said.

“There is a strong suspicion that the process that took place, including the random sampling, the forced pickup, and the unavailability of the swab test results whether positive or negative, even after they had arrived at the hospital, has been carried out not for health reasons,” he added.

The commission is currently looking into this case through monitoring and an investigation. If there were evidence found of abuse of authority through the use of COVID-19 handling, the commission would take it further to law enforcement agency and the National COVID-19 Task Force.

The Head of the Samarinda Health Office’s Disease Prevention and Control, Osa Rafshodia, declined to elaborat. Rafshodia did confirm that swab tests had been conducted on activists of WALHI, the Working Group 30 and LBH Samarinda but he stressed that everything had been done in accordance with the Health Ministry protocol.

“We were only following the technical instructions from the Health Ministry,” he told Ekuatorial, on August 2.

He denied that the process involved the use of force. Rafshodia said that the act of picking up the three activist who did now show any symptom of COVID-19 infection and taking them to the Isolation ward of the I.A. Moeis general hospital was in accordance with the health ministry’s protocol.

“These three people are currently in self-quarantine,” he said. “Nothing was forced on them them.”

Rafshodia declined to comment on the report that the health personnel who conducted the swab tests did not provide any identity nor carry any assignment letter as they should have.

He only repeated that everything was in line with the instructions from the Health Ministry.

The fifth revision of the Guideline for the Prevention and Control of the Coronavirus Disease, published by the Ministry of Health, stipulates that health personnel taking swab tests must carry their identity card and have an assignment letter. Rafshodia said that the Samarinda Health Office was ready to face any investigation by the Komnas HAM. Ekuatorial.


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