Thursday, August 5, 2021

Cops probe death of Indonesian gold mine critic who died during flight

Rights groups say his death falls into a pattern of violence against people standing up for environmental rights.

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Indonesian police are looking into the sudden death of an official who fought against plans to open a controversial gold mine.

Helmud Hontong, deputy regent of Indonesia’s remote Sangihe islands, died during a flight from Bali to Makassar last Wednesday.

Rights groups say his death falls into a pattern of violence against people standing up for environmental rights.

However, police say an initial post-mortem examination points to a natural death.

The 58-year-old politician appeared in good health before his flight from Bali, but 20 minutes into the journey began feeling dizzy, according to an aide travelling with him.

“He then lost consciousness and blood flowed from his mouth and nose,” Hermen Kontu told Reuters news agency.

He was declared dead on arrival at Sultan Hasanuddin International Airport in Makassar.

Authorities have said the suspected cause of death was a chronic illness and heart failure, but police are carrying out additional investigations.

Hontong was a vocal critic of a large gold mine project on his island.

Mining firm PT Tambang Mas Sangihe was awarded the concession for the mine in January, but opponents of the project say it threatens native forests, birds, and the water supply for the islanders.

In April, Hontong wrote to the responsible ministry urging authorities to revoke the permit over environmental concerns.

Amnesty International said the politician’s death falls into a pattern of violence and threats against people fighting for environmental and land rights issues.

“Let the police process it legally if there’s any suspicion,” Alfred Pontolondo, coordinator of the Save Sangihe Island environment group told Reuters. “I don’t want to speculate on his death.”

Merah Johansyah of the Mining Advocacy Network said he fears the mining project, if it goes ahead, has the potential to completely destroy the island.

“On a small island like Sangihe, everything is limited – fresh water is limited, the ecology is limited. If half the island becomes a mining area, it will sink the island,” he said.

His group says there are already at least 55 islands in the Indonesian archipelago that have been completely destroyed by mining.

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