Indonesian police investigate death of politician who opposed isolated gold mine
By Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Kate Lamb
JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian police are investigating the death of a Sulawesi island politician who opposed a gold mine plan there, after environmental groups and the rights commission of the man have called for an investigation.
Helmud Hontong, 58, deputy regent of the remote islands of Sangihe, North Sulawesi province, was pronounced dead upon arrival at Sultan Hasanuddin International Airport in Makassar city last Wednesday.
He appeared to be in good health before boarding a Lion Air flight to the island of Bali, but complained of dizziness around 20 minutes after take-off, his assistant Harmen Kontu told Reuters , who was sitting next to him at the time.
Helmud “passed out and blood flowed from his mouth and nose” shortly after, Kontu said.
Police have set up a team to investigate the death, North Sulawesi police spokesman Jules Abraham Abast said on Monday.
The first results of an autopsy showed no indication of poison, police said in a forensic report, adding that the presumed cause of death was chronic illness.
No further details were provided, but police said forensic samples had been sent for further testing.
Ahmad Taufan Damanik, chairman of Indonesia’s Komnas HAM human rights commission, said she asked police to investigate after receiving complaints from residents of Sangihe Island. The commission, he said, would also monitor the mining dispute.
Helmud was a staunch opponent of the 42,000 hectare gold mine concession granted to PT Tambang Mas Sangihe. The central government gave the green light for the mine in January.
PT Tambang Mas Sangihe is 70% owned by the Canadian company Baru Gold Corporation and 30% by combined interests, according to the Baru Gold website. The company was not immediately available for comment.
Environmentalists say the mining permit, which covers more than half of Sangihe Island, poses a threat to the island’s ancient forest, at least 10 species of birds and the water supply to residents of the island. the island, mostly fishermen and farmers.
On April 28, Helmud wrote to the Department of Energy and Mineral Resources urging it to revoke the mining permit on environmental grounds.
The letter had been received and ministry officials were planning a meeting with officials in Sangihe to discuss the mine, Ministry official Ridwan Djamaluddin said in a statement.
Alfred Pontolondo, coordinator of the environmental group Save Sangihe Island, said Helmud was close to the island’s residents and opposed the mine “because of his love for the island”.
“I don’t want to speculate on his death,” he said. “Let the police treat him legally if there is any suspicion.”
(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta and Kate Lamb in Sydney; editing by Robert Birsel)