Indonesian government launches probe into tear gas firing at football match, removes police chief

An Indonesian police chief and nine elite officers were removed from their posts on Monday, and 18 others were under investigation for responsibility for firing tear gas at a soccer stadium that sparked a stampede and killed at least 125 people, officials said.

Distraught family members struggled to understand the loss of loved ones, including 17 children, at the game in the East Java city of Malang, which was attended only by fans of hometown Arema FC. The organizer had banned fans of visiting team Persebaya Surabaya due to Indonesia’s history of violent soccer rivalries.

Saturday night’s disaster was among the deadliest ever at a sporting event.

Arema players and officials laid wreaths in front of the stadium on Monday.

“We came here as a team asking for forgiveness from the families affected by this tragedy, those who have lost loved ones or who are still being treated in hospital,” said Arema coach Javier Roca.

On Monday evening, about 1,000 football fans in black jerseys held a candlelight vigil at a football stadium in Jakarta’s satellite city of Bekasi to pray for the victims of the disaster.

Witnesses said some of the 42,000 Arema fans ran onto the field in anger on Saturday after the side were defeated 3-2, their first home defeat by Persebaya in 23 years. Some threw bottles and other objects at players and football officials. At least five police vehicles were overturned and set on fire in front of the stadium.

But most of the deaths occurred as riot police trying to stop the violence fired tear gas, including in the stands, prompting a disastrous stampede of fans who ran in panic to the exits. Most of the 125 dead were trampled or suffocated. Two police officers were among the victims.

At least 17 children were among the dead and seven were being treated in hospitals, the Ministry for Women’s Advancement and Child Protection said. Police said 323 people were injured in the crush, with some remaining in critical condition.

National Police Spokesman Dedy Prasetyo said Malang Police Chief Ferli Hidayat was removed along with nine members of an elite mobile police brigade. They face possible dismissal in a police ethics process.

Prasetyo said 18 officers responsible for firing the tear gas, ranging from middle to high ranks, were under investigation.

Police are interviewing witnesses and analyzing video from 32 surveillance cameras inside and outside the stadium and nine victims’ cellphones as part of an investigation that will also identify suspected vandals, he said.

The parents and other relatives of Faiqotul Hikmah, 22, howled Monday when an ambulance arrived at their home with her body wrapped in white cloth and a black blanket. She died while fleeing to Exit 12 of Kanjuruhan Stadium.

A dozen friends had traveled with her to see the game, but Hikmah was one of only four able to enter the stadium because tickets were sold out, her friend Abdul Mukid said on Monday. He later bought a ticket from an agent after hearing about the chaos at the stadium to look for Hikmah.

“I have to find them, save them,” Mukid recalled.

Mukid found Hikmah’s body with broken ribs and bluish bruises on his face hanging from a building on the stadium grounds. He learned that a second friend had also died from other friends who called him while he was in an ambulance taking Hikmah’s body to a hospital.

“I can’t put into words how sad I am to lose my sister,” said Nur Laila, Hikmah’s older sibling.

“She was just a big Arema fan who wanted to see her favorite team play. She shouldn’t just die for it,” she said, wiping away tears.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo ordered the first division soccer league suspended until safety is reassessed and security tightened. The Indonesian Football Federation also banned Arema from hosting football matches for the remainder of the season.

Gilang Widya Pramana, President of Arema FC, expressed his sorrow and deepest apologies to the victims and the Indonesian people and said he was ready to take full responsibility for the tragedy at his team’s stadium.

He said the management, coach and players were shocked and speechless.

“I am ready to provide aid even if it cannot bring back the victims’ lives,” Pramana said at a press conference at Arema’s Malang headquarters on Monday.

“This incident was unpredictable, beyond all reason… in a game only seen by our fans, not a single opposing supporter,” he said through sobs. “How can this match kill more than 100 people?”

He said Arema FC is ready to accept all sanctions from the Indonesian Football Federation and the government and that “hopefully it will be a very valuable lesson”.

Indonesian Security Minister Mohammad Mahfud said he will lead an inquiry that will look into violations of the law in the disaster and make recommendations to the President on how to improve football security. The investigation should be completed in three weeks.

Mahfud directed national police and military chiefs to punish those who committed crimes and acts that sparked the stampede.

“The government asked the national police to review their security procedures,” Mahfud said at a news conference.

Human rights organization Amnesty International called on Indonesia to investigate the use of tear gas and ensure those responsible are brought to justice. While FIFA has no control over domestic matches, it has discouraged the use of tear gas in football stadiums.

Despite Indonesia’s lack of international prominence in sport, hooliganism is rife in the football-obsessed country, where bigotry often ends in violence. Data from Indonesia’s football regulator Save Our Soccer shows that 78 people have died in match-related incidents over the past 28 years.

Saturday’s game was among the world’s worst mass disasters in sport, including a 1996 World Cup qualifier between Guatemala and Costa Rica in Guatemala City that left over 80 dead and more than 100 injured. In April 2001, more than 40 people were crushed to death during a football match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, South Africa. In February 2012, after a match between rivals al-Masry and al-Ahly, 74 people were killed and more than 500 injured when thousands of al-Masry fans rushed onto the field and attacked visiting fans. The Egyptian league was then suspended for two years. Indonesian government launches probe into tear gas firing at football match, removes police chief

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