JAKARTA—A massive breakout triggered by poor conditions at an Indonesian prison allowed at least 22 convicted terrorists to escape custody, underscoring the persistent weaknesses of a correctional system that remains years behind the country’s advancing counterterrorism operations.
Almost 200 inmates remain on the loose following a riot and fires late Thursday at a medium-security prison in Medan, one of the country’s largest cities, across the Malacca Strait from Malaysia and southern Thailand.
“The prison’s diesel generator isn’t sufficient” for backup power purposes, Djoko Suyanto, the coordinating minister for politics, justice and defense, told reporters Friday.
Prison breaks are uncommon in Indonesia, despite inadequate forces and monitoring systems. But the facility failure at Medan underscored weaknesses that are seen in an overburdened system across the archipelago country of some 240 million people. Tanjung Gusta houses some 2,600 inmates, more than double its ideal capacity of just over 1,000. On a national scale, prison coordination is low. Only recently did a database come into existence that allowed police in Jakarta to determine Friday just which prisoners were missing in the Medan breakout.
“Most of the corrections facilities across the country are overcrowded,” said Dina Juliani, an official at the Directorate General of Correctional Institutions who audits facilities. “A 15-meter-square room should house five people, but I’ve seen up to 25… .This isn’t something that will be resolved quickly. It gets down to our funding and an inane bureaucratic system.”
Though Indonesia’s most dangerous convicted militants are housed far away at a high-security island prison in central Java, the prisoners who escaped Thursday have a history of violence and connections to extremist organizations in the country, the world’s most-populous Muslim majority nation.
Many took part in the largest-ever militant training camp in Indonesia, located nearby in the conservative province of Aceh where Islamic law is prevalent, that was broken up by counterterrorism forces in early 2010. Others made deadly bank raids in the region, with some of the money thought to go toward funding new training camps elsewhere in the archipelago.
The breakout is “clearly significant,” said Sidney Jones, a terrorism expert and head of Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta. “It underscores how poorly the prison system understands who it is they’re holding. And how great a need there is to evaluate who is a high-risk detainee.”
The most significant of the escapees was Fadli Sadama, a three-time terror convict who a decade ago had links to highly placed operatives in Jemaah Islamiyah, al Qaeda’s main franchise in Southeast Asia, at the height of the organization’s power and influence. Jemaah Islamiyah was behind the 2002 Bali bombings, the most deadly terrorist attack in Indonesia’s history.
Mr. Fadli, who was serving an 11-year sentence in Medan for smuggling arms for terrorists in Indonesia, was known as a recruiter while in jail, experts said. He is also believed to have been a leader of a foiled plan to attack the Tanjung Gusta prison in 2010 to free other militants, said Muh Taufiqurrohman, an expert on terrorism issues at the Jakarta-based Abdurrahman Wahid Center.
Many of the escapees also have links to Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid, a Islamic militant group in Indonesia that was started by former members of Jemaah Islamiyah and provided much of the funding for the Aceh camp, experts said.
The prison system has been strained in part by a counterterrorism force in Indonesia that has largely quashed the most significant terrorist threats in the country.
Indonesia suffered large-scale bombings in the early 2000s, but in recent years the terror networks that survived the sustained crackdowns have turned to smaller attacks against police and officials—largely because that is all they have the capacity to do. But Ken Conboy, a security analyst with RMA Indonesia, said that the holiday season during the holy month of Ramadan could strain the manpower needed to make arrests.
Published in The Wall Street Journal on 12 July 2013 | Ben Otto and Andreas Ismar