Elite Indonesian police officers were under investigation on Tuesday over a stadium stampede that killed 125 people including dozens of children in one of the deadliest disasters in football history.
As public anger grew over the tragedy, police moved to punish those responsible for the crush in the city of Malang that witnesses say started when officers fired tear gas into packed stands to quell a pitch invasion.
Arema FC fans set up a makeshift centre in Malang on Monday to receive legal complaints, saying they would file a lawsuit against officers for causing what they said were scores of deaths by indiscriminately targeting spectators in confined terraces.
Police described the incident as a riot and said two officers were killed, but survivors accused them of overreacting.
“If there was a riot, it (the tear gas) should be fired to the pitch, not in the stand,” Danny Agung Prasetyo, supporter group Arema DC’s coordinator, told AFP.
“Many of the victims were those who were in the stand. They were panicking because of the tear gas,” he said.
A supporter at the centre said Arema fans would stage a large rally if no suspects were named by the weekend.
The local police chief was replaced on Monday, nine officers were suspended and 19 others were put under investigation over the disaster in the stadium, which was filled with only hometown Arema FC fans, national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said.
He said those suspended were members of the Mobile Brigade Corps, or Brimob, a unit that acts as the special operations paramilitary unit for the Indonesian police force and is notorious for its aggressive crowd control tactics.
The Indonesian government suspended the country’s national football league and announced a task force to investigate the tragedy.
It said the probe would take two to three weeks.
The terraces of the Kanjuruhan stadium were packed with thousands of young “Aremania”, or Arema FC fans, for a match against fierce rivals Persebaya Surabaya.
But after a 3-2 defeat, the first at home for more than two decades to their adversaries, fans streamed down to the pitch to speak to players and management.
Police responded to the pitch invasion with force, kicking and hitting fans with batons, according to witnesses and video footage, prompting more fans to come onto the pitch.
Calls for an independent investigation have grown since details of the stampede started to emerge over the weekend.
“There is no instruction to fire tear gas and there is no instruction to lock the door,” Albertus Wahyurudhanto, a commissioner of the National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM), told a press conference on Tuesday.
Fan anger was displayed outside the stadium where a police truck was torched and the walls were daubed with graffiti that read “Tear gas vs mother’s tears” and “Our friends died here”.
More vigils were planned in Malang on Tuesday after fans and Arema FC players gathered outside the stadium a day before to lay flowers at the scene and pray for the victims.
Among the dead were 32 children, an official at the women’s empowerment and child protection ministry told AFP, adding that the youngest was a toddler aged three or four.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino called the tragedy a “dark day” for football.
The safety guidelines of football’s global governing body prohibit the use of crowd control gas by police or stewards at pitchside.
Brazilian superstar Pele expressed his condolences and said “violence and sports do not mix”.
Football fan violence is an enduring problem in Indonesia, and Persebaya Surabaya supporters had been barred from the game because of it.
But fans said they were not to blame.
Indonesian officials said more tickets had been allocated than should have been, while some of the stadium’s doors appeared to have been shut, according to witnesses.
That left physically stronger supporters to scale large fences in order to escape the mayhem while the most vulnerable were at the mercy of the crush as tear gas rained down.
“The doors were closed, that’s why people were pushing. Some lay down in the corner” by a closed gate to try to escape the crush, a 16-year-old survivor of the chaos told AFP.
“In the stand, there were some people who got hit [by canisters] directly.
I saw it myself.”
Everything that could go wrong at a football match, appeared to do so on Saturday night, culminating in a disaster never seen before in an Indonesian stadium.
“You could see and sense that something bad could potentially happen.
That’s the kind of fear you usually get when you travel to a game here,” Indonesian football pundit Pangeran Siahaan told AFP.
“There’s a lot of dangers every time you go into a football stadium in Indonesia. “