Helen Todd v. Sintong Panjaitan Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 

September 1992

Case Description 

Todd v. Panjaitan is a case filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in 1994 which charged Indonesian General Sinton Pangaitan with human rights abuses.

In September 1992, CCR filed a wrongful death suit in Massachusetts federal court against Indonesian General Sintong Pangaitan on behalf of Helen Todd, whose 20-year-old son Kamal Bamadhaj, a citizen of New Zealand, was killed in 1991.

Bamadhaj had been observing the funeral procession of a young East Timorese man killed earlier by the Indonesian military when hundreds of armed uniformed soldiers opened fire on the crowd. Bamadhaj, a student at an Australian university, was traveling throughout the area on his way home to Malaysia.

The soldiers shot into a densely packed unarmed crowd for more than five minutes; as victims fell to the ground, soldiers continued firing at those still standing. Between 146 and 200 people were killed. Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman, U.S. journalists, witnessed the incident and were attacked by soldiers, barely escaping with their lives. Panjaitan, the Indonesian commander of the region which includes East Timor, was transferred from his position after the massacre and moved to Massachusetts; he fled back to Indonesia after the lawsuit was filed.

Panjaitan failed to respond to the lawsuit, and a notice of default was entered in February 1993.

Testimony was given at a November 1994 hearing by Ms. Todd, Mr. Nairn, and a Timorese student, which the judge described as “impressive and painful.” Ms. Todd said her son was shot in the arm during the initial firing and later in the chest by an army patrol. Troops prevented an International Red Cross jeep from taking him to a hospital Todd told the judge, “I’m the only plaintiff because I’m the only one of 271 families that can bring this case without endangering my other children.”

In November 1994, a federal judge in Massachusetts awarded $14 million to Ms. Todd, who stated she would use the damages to start a fund for all of the victims.

Following the damage award, Panjaitan appeared in Australia on a week-long business trip in March 1995, causing an uproar among human rights groups that had followed the Todd case. A main television channel of New Zealand, where Todd resides, interviewed CCR attorneys, reflecting the interest of many New Zealanders in the case.