MEDAN: A spate of violent muggings by machete-wielding thieves in Indonesia has drawn coded calls from prominent politicians for them to be killed on sight by police, in comments condemned by human rights groups as condoning extrajudicial murders.
Last month, police in the northern Sumatran city of Medan shot dead a “begal” – an Indonesian term used to describe a type of street thief known for their brutality – as part of what the force said was a bid to “eradicate” them.
Bobby Nasution, mayor of Medan and President Joko Widodo’s son-in-law, lauded the officers involved, saying such criminals should be shot dead on the spot.
“I appreciate this because begal and criminals have no place in Medan,” he wrote in an Instagram post on Jul 9, sharing footage of the suspect’s dead body.
President Widodo has not commented on Nasution’s statements, but other leaders, including the governor of North Sumatra province, have supported the comments.
Rights groups want an investigation into the killing, and have condemned the rhetoric as giving officers and citizens the right to take the law into their own hands.
“It is inappropriate for public officials to declare support for such extrajudicial actions,” Amnesty International Indonesia director Usman Hamid told AFP.
“The shooting not only violates human rights principles – such as the right to life, the right to a fair trial – but also the regulations.”
Indonesian police rules state that firearms should only be used as an officer’s last resort.
Indonesia’s Institute for Criminal Justice Reform called Nasution’s words “irresponsible”.
Some public sentiment, however, is on the mayor’s side.
Under viral videos of the “begal” attacks, social media users call for the thieves to be shot dead or to face the death penalty.
And in a village east of Jakarta, local leaders have issued a 10 million rupiah (US$662) bounty for the capture of “begals”.
“Begals” have savagely attacked their victims with sickles, airguns and rocks, terrorising Indonesians in Jakarta, Medan and other urban centres.
They approach their victims on scooters, usually in carefully chosen areas that have few security cameras, so that they can rapidly escape after the robbery.
“They have to do it quickly and cruelly to make the victim surrender,” said Adrianus Meliala, a criminologist at the University of Indonesia.
“Begal run away using the city labyrinth they have mastered.”
Medan, Indonesia’s fifth-largest city, has been hit by 45 begal attacks since January, police say, and one brutal case two months ago caused an uproar.
Student Insanul Anshori Hasibuan was riding a scooter home when a man hacked him in the head with a machete, stealing his wallet.
Hasibuan, 22, died in hospital after the attacker and several accomplices escaped with the contents of the wallet: just 70,000 rupiah.
Four suspects were later arrested, and face up to 15 years in jail if convicted.
Such brutal attacks have been splashed across Indonesian media, raising public fear and allowing Nasution to cast himself as a champion for law and order.
According to official data, the rate of robberies has risen in 2023, but experts say Indonesian criminal data is often incomplete due to underreporting.
Indonesia’s national police force did not respond to an AFP request for comment.
The issue is a complex culmination of factors, including rising poverty in one of the world’s most unequal countries, the difficulty of countering such quick and violent attacks, weak rule of law and crumbling public trust in the police.
“The begal phenomenon cannot be separated from the social economic order of society,” said Ida Ruwaida of the University of Indonesia.
Rights groups say they are concerned that calls by prominent politicians such as Nasution to kill suspects on sight could lead to chaos on the country’s streets.
“We are concerned that the statement by the mayor of Medan can serve as legitimacy for more extrajudicial killings,” said Hamid.