How police action in Indonesia led to a deadly crush in the soccer stadium

A massive barrage of tear gas munitions fired by Indonesian police at soccer fans prompted the fatal crush in Malang last weekend that left at least 130 people dead, a Washington Post investigation shows.

The firing of at least 40 munitions at the crowd within a 10-minute span, in violation of national protocols and international security guidelines for soccer matches, sent fans streaming for the exits. The munitions included tear gas, flash bangs and flares.

Many fans were either trampled to death or fatally crushed against walls and metal gates because some of the exits were closed, the investigation found. The Indonesian National Police did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The review — based on an examination of more than 100 videos and photographs, interviews with 11 witnesses and analyses by crowd control experts and civil rights advocates — reveals how the police’s use of tear gas in response to several hundred fans entering the field caused a huge surge at the southern end of Kanjuruhan stadium, where survivors say the bulk of the deaths occurred. Several doors were locked, witnesses said, further fueling the panic. This was confirmed by the country’s president, who has ordered a safety review of stadiums in the country.

As of Thursday, officials said 131 people had died, including 40 children. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International Indonesia, say the toll in Indonesia’s Malang regency could be as high as 200.

The Indonesian government has called for an inquiry into the incident, which is among the deadliest crowd disasters ever recorded. Provincial police officials have said their use of tear gas was warranted because “there was anarchy,” but crowd control experts who reviewed a video reconstruction provided by The Post disagreed.

The chief of Malang’s police department and nine other officers were dismissed Wednesday for their role in the disaster. Another 18 officers are also under investigation.

The police response violated the Football Association of Indonesia’s protocols, which state that all matches have to abide by security provisions laid out by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body. FIFA bars “crowd control gas” from being used inside stadiums and mandates that exit gates and emergency exits remain unobstructed at all times.

Videos provided exclusively to The Post show that police, shortly after the game ended, fired at least 40 nonlethal munitions at fans either on the field or in the stands. Much of the gas drifted toward seating sections, or “tribunes,” 11, 12 and 13.

Police standing in front of section 13 fired tear gas onto the field and upward into the stands, prompting thousands of spectators to evacuate their seats, videos show. Bottlenecks formed at the exits, which were only wide enough for one or two people to pass at a time, eyewitnesses said.

Clifford Stott, a professor at Keele University in Britain who studies the policing of sports fans, reviewed videos provided by The Post and said that what happened at Kanjuruhan was a direct result of police action combined with poor stadium management. Along with another crowd control expert and four civil rights advocates, he said the police use of tear gas was disproportionate.

“To fire tear gas into the stands when the gates are locked is likely to lead to nothing else other than the massive amounts of fatalities,” he said. “And that’s exactly what’s occurred.”

At 9:39 p.m. on Saturday, the referee blew the final whistle in the game between Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya, rival teams in East Java province. The vast majority of spectators were fans of Arema FC, the home team, which had lost to Persebaya for the first time in 23 years. As Arema players began to leave the field, a few supporters hopped the barrier to approach them.

Two minutes after the players were escorted off the field, security personnel guarding the exit began pushing back the crowd, scattering the fans. Tensions rapidly escalated.

Officers in military fatigues started to push fans back toward sections 11, 12 and 13, kicking them and striking them with batons and riot shields. Some spectators fell as they tried to clamber over metal barriers and back into the stands.

At about 9:50 p.m., police escalated to tear gas and flash bangs. Smoke caused by flares and gas drifted toward the southern seating sections, videos show.

Spectators in sections 9 and 10 told The Post they coughed and their eyes started tearing almost immediately. In sections 12 and 13, rows of people were almost entirely blanketed by chemicals. Cries from tribune 13 echoed through the stands, witnesses said.

“The gas burned,” recalled Elmiati, 33. She was seated near the exit in section 13 with her husband and 3-year-old son but was separated from them during the chaos. Both of them died of injuries later that night.

“They kept firing into the tribunes … but the people there had no idea what was happening,” said Elmiati, who like many Indonesians only goes by one name. “We weren’t the ones who had run onto the field.”

As gas and smoke wafted through sections 12 and 13, many spectators jumped back onto the field to escape it, according to 10 witnesses interviewed by The Post. Others who tried to leave found the exits blocked, prompting them to jump onto the field, too, in search of another way out.