Indonesia police investigate death of politician who opposed remote gold mine

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesian police are looking into the death of a politician from Sulawesi island who opposed a gold mine project there, after environmental groups and the human rights commission called for an investigation.

Helmud Hontong, 58, the deputy regent of the remote Sangihe islands, in North Sulawesi province, was pronounced dead on arrival at Sultan Hasanuddin International Airport in the city of Makassar last Wednesday.

He had appeared to be in good health before boarding a Lion Air flight on Bali island but complained of feeling dizzy about 20 minutes after takeoff, his aide, Harmen Kontu, who was sitting beside him at the time, told Reuters.

Helmud "lost conscious and blood flowed from his mouth and nose” soon afterwards, Kontu said.

Police have set up a team to investigate the death, Jules Abraham Abast, a spokesman for the North Sulawesi police, said on Monday.

Initial results of an autopsy did not show any indication of poison, police said in a forensic report, adding that the suspected cause of death was chronic illness.

No further details were provided but police said forensic samples had been sent for further testing.

Ahmad Taufan Damanik, chairman of Indonesia’s human rights commission Komnas HAM, said it had asked police to investigate after they received complaints from Sangihe island residents. The commission, he said, would also monitor the mining dispute.

Helmud was a staunch opponent of a 42,000 hectare gold mine concession granted to the company, PT Tambang Mas Sangihe. The central government gave the greenlight for the mine in January.

PT Tambang Mas Sangihe is 70% owned by Canadian firm Baru Gold Corporation and 30% by combined interests, according to the Baru Gold website. The company was not immediately available for comment.

Environmentalists say the mining permit, which covers more than half of Sangihe island, is a threat to the island's ancient forest, at least 10 species of birds and water supplies for the island’s residents, most of them fishermen and farmers.

On April 28, Helmud wrote to the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry urging it to revoke the mine permit on environmental grounds.

The letter had been received and representatives of the ministry were scheduling a meeting with authorities in Sangihe to discuss the mine, Ridwan Djamaluddin, an official from the ministry, said in a statement.

Alfred Pontolondo, coordinator of the Save Sangihe Island environment group, said Helmud had been close to the island’s residents and opposed the mine "because of his love for the island".

"I don't want to speculate on his death," he said. "Let the police process it legally if there's any suspicion."

(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta and Kate Lamb in Sydney; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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