Palm oil firm faces court action: Jakarta

A police line at a burnt forest concession area belonging to APSL in Riau. Ms Siti said APSL "cannot deny" that it had ties to a group of men who held her officials for several hours last Friday and threatened their lives.
A police line at a burnt forest concession area belonging to APSL in Riau. Ms Siti said APSL "cannot deny" that it had ties to a group of men who held her officials for several hours last Friday and threatened their lives.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Minister says company linked to illegal detention of fire investigators last week

The palm oil company linked to alleged illegal detention of seven fire inspectors in Riau province will have to defend itself in court, Indonesian Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said yesterday.

She said the firm, Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL), "cannot deny" that it had ties to a group of men who held her officials for several hours last Friday and threatened their lives.

"Everything will be investigated so they can respond during the investigations or in court - that is the most appropriate," said Ms Siti, who was answering a question from The Straits Times on the sidelines of a community event in Jakarta.

When asked if the firm will be taken to court over the incident, Ms Siti nodded and said "Yes".

Her ministry's director-general of law enforcement Rasio Ridho Sani told reporters yesterday that the ministry is also investigating if the firm had broken forestry laws, including converting peatland into palm oil plantation without a permit and carrying out illegal burning.

Seven fire investigators from the ministry were inspecting a plantation in Rokan Hulu district in Riau last Friday, after hot spots were detected by satellites and haze from forest fires blanketed the skies.

An investigator who cannot be named for safety reasons told a press conference yesterday that they were "blockaded" for several hours by dozens of men who demanded that they delete photo and video evidence collected during their survey of the concession.

"They said, 'Just kill them', 'Burn them', 'Throw them into the river', not once or twice but several times," he said. "We faced intimidation."

The investigators eventually gave in to the demands and were released on Saturday morning.

Officials believe the men were working for APSL, but company spokesman Novalina Sirait denied the allegations and blamed local farmers who were "offended" by the ministry officials.

"We were made scapegoats. The local farmers did that out of their own accord. And we don't facilitate local farmers," she told The Straits Times. "There's no burning on our lands - that took place on land owned by the community."

But Ms Siti said at a press conference yesterday that since November 2014, firms in Riau had often operated their businesses under the guise of local people or "organised groups" which are backed by "mobile financiers".

President Joko Widodo had ordered"disciplinary action and law enforcement" against such errant companies, she said.

She added: "I will not retreat a single step but continue to advance legal proceedings related to this forest fire case in Rokan Hulu. We will resolve this."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Palm oil firm faces court action: Jakarta'. Print Edition | Subscribe