12/17/2009, 00.00
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Catholic priest investigated for helping rubber planters in North Sumatra

by Mathias Hariyadi
Fr Rantius Manalu provided local farmers with seeds to plant in an abandoned piece of land. After a seven-hour interrogation, police decide to charge him for unauthorised use of public land. The local bishop as well as local Christians and Muslims express their solidarity towards him.
Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Hundreds of people, including priests, nuns and lay people, both Christians and Muslims, gathered in front of North Sumatra’s police headquarters to protest against the detention and interrogation of Fr Rantius Manalu, a Catholic priest and human rights activist. Mgr Ludovicus Manullang, bishop of Sibolga, led the demonstrators.

Father Manalu was detained and subjected to a seven-hour interrogation because he had “handed out rubber seeds to farmers” to be planted in an area left vacant for a long time, but claimed by the North Sumatra chapter of the Forestry Ministry. He will have to respond to charges of unauthorised use of public property. 

A local farmer, Robinson Tarihoran, will join him in the dock, for cooperating in taking over an area demarcated as Register 47 Forest.

The Catholic priest is famous for defending the people of Parbatua and Hutaginjang, two villages in sub-districts in North Barus, central Tapanuli (northern Sumatra).

He encouraged locals to farm land that had been left unused for a long time and handed out rubber seeds for planting. However, the land is claimed by the government.

The priest’s attorney, Diah Susilowati, said that the minutes of the interrogation were not signed, “Because legal procedures were not respected.”

Mgr Manullang sided with Father Manalu right away. He stressed that the “decision to hand out the seeds to farmers was taken with the accord of the diocese,” and that the priest “fulfilled his pastoral mission by defending the rights of the people.”

Sodikin Lubis, a local farmer and a prominent Muslim community leader, expressed his solidarity to the Catholic priest. “Local farmers have been using the land for a long time. They hold a permit dating back to 1941.”

In an e-mail to AsiaNews, Father Manalu said that the charges against him are “unfair and baseless,” and this for three reasons: “Contrary to the police file, I did not do anything wrong, morally or otherwise. I do not own any land, farmed or otherwise. I am an environmentalist and if I was allowed I would take care of the trees to give new life to the land in Sibolga.”

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