Indonesia says palm oil company linked to Riau mob that illegally detained fire inspectors will be taken to court

This photo taken on Sept 2, 2016 shows Indonesian officials putting up a police line at a burnt forest concession area.
This photo taken on Sept 2, 2016 shows Indonesian officials putting up a police line at a burnt forest concession area. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar on Tuesday (Sept 6) said the palm oil company linked to last Friday's illegal detention of seven fire inspectors in Riau province, will have to defend itself in court.

She said the firm, Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL), "cannot deny" that it had ties to the group of men who illegally held her officials for several hours 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 responding to a question from The Straits Times on the sidelines of a community event in Jakarta.

Seven fire investigators from the ministry were inspecting a plantation in Rokan Hulu in Riau last Friday after hot spots were detected by satellites over the area when haze from forest fires engulfed the skies over the province recently.

They were confronted by about 100 men who Ms Siti said were believed to be working for APSL. The mob refused to let them leave and demanded that the officers delete photo and video evidence collected during their survey of the concession in Rokan Hulu regency.

The men allegedly held the officers for several hours, and even threatened to burn them alive and dump their bodies in the river. The officers later gave in to their demands and were released on Saturday morning.

An APSL spokesman on Monday denied that it was involved in the incident and blamed local farmers who were "offended" by the ministry, reported The Jakarta Post.

"We are mentioned every time something happens on the local farmers' lands. We don't facilitate the local farmers. We are not in the position to defy the ministry," the spokesman was quoted as saying. "The local farmers spoke to the media. It was not a hostage situation. It was their own spontaneity because they felt they were not respected," she added.

When asked if APSL will be taken to court over the incident in Rokan Hulu, Ms Siti nodded and said: "Yes."

Previously on Sunday, Ms Siti had said her ministry's "main priority" was to launch an investigation into ASPL, which has no permission to cultivate land in Rokan Hulu. She said other material evidence from a drone camera, which the mob did not find, showed some 2,000ha of land burnt by APSL workers pretending to be farmers.

She said the land was formerly a peat swamp forest which has been converted into a palm oil plantation. Her team also found ashes from "intentional fire" as well as several points where smoke was rising from the ground.

aarlina@sph.com.sg