Naked City

Freeport's Mercenary Murderers?

Killing and torturing local tribal members around the Grasberg mine in West Papua was one thing. But the legendary brutality of the Indonesian military has gotten out of hand: Two Americans are dead -- killed, it appears, by Indonesian soldiers. And Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, the operator of the mine, has admitted it was making payments to the Indonesian military during the same time period that the soldiers ambushed the Americans.

Last August, Indonesian solders armed with assault rifles allegedly ambushed several vehicles that were traveling on a road near Freeport's mine. Two American teachers and an Indonesian, all Freeport employees, were killed. A dozen others were injured. It is widely believed that the shootings were an attempt by the soldiers to extort additional money from Freeport. That allegation gained credence earlier this month when the mining giant, in a filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, admitted that it has paid the Indonesian military over $11.4 million in the past two years to provide security in and around the mine, which contains the globe's biggest gold deposit. The company's payments to the military may violate Indonesian law.

By acknowledging the payments, Freeport could be hit with a new wave of tort claims, says Stuart Kirsch, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan who specializes in Melanesian cultures. "This looks like the 'smoking gun' that was missing from earlier legal claims," says Kirsch, referring to lawsuits that were filed against the company several years ago in federal court in New Orleans. "It suggests the possibility that claims regarding human rights violations might be revisited with greater success."

Freeport did not respond to questions from the Chronicle.

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