Days before verdicts are due for seven Papuan pro-independence activists and students standing trial for treason linked to organizing and taking part in anti-government protests last year, Human Rights Watch on Thursday called for the charges to be dropped.
Prosecutors last week announced that they were seeking prison sentences of five to 17 years for the seven – Buchtar Tabuni, Agus Kossay, Stevanus Itlay, Ferry Gombo, Alexander Gobai, Irwanus Uropmabin and Hengki Hilapok – if convicted.
Their trial is taking place in Indonesian Borneo, far from their home region of Papua or Java Island, the center of Indonesian government.
“Prosecutors should release these Papuan activists who have suffered enough by being jailed for months far from home for peaceful acts of free expression,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement.
The harshest punishment, 17 years, was sought for Tabuni, identified as the leader of the pro-independence United Liberation Movement for West Papua (KNPB), while prosecutors asked for 15-year sentences for Kossay and Itlay, leaders of the National Committee of West Papua.
The indictments allege that protests and unrest, which flared up in the troubled Papua region at the far-eastern end of Indonesia in August and September 2019, were directly linked to KNPB.
“Indonesian police have created a revolving door by arresting Papuan activists like Buchtar Tabuni for peaceful protests. That needs to stop,” Adams said.
Sentences of 10 years were sought for Gombo and Gobai, student union leaders at Cenderawasih University and the University of Science and Technology – Jayapura (USTJ), respectively, and five years for the other two students, Uropmabin and Hilapok.
Defense attorney Fathul Huda Wiyashadi said some of the defendants claimed they were under pressure from police when they made statements about the case.
“We will counter the prosecutors’ argument because the transcripts of the police investigation are not based on the facts,” he told BenarNews last week.
Meanwhile, Papuan activists and their supporters, inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, have taken to social media using the hashtag “PapuanLivesMatter” to denounce what they see as racist treatment across Indonesia of Papuans, who are ethnically Melanesian.
“Indonesia had its own version of Black Lives Matter protests last year, and police outrageously charged and detained those seen as organizing the protests,” Adams said.
Protests in big cities broke out across the United States in late May and June, sparked by a video that showed an on-duty Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, George Floyd, who said he could not breathe and later died, as other policemen stood nearby.
In Papua last August and September, more than 40 people were killed during unrest that was ignited by the perceived racist treatment of Papuan students by Indonesian security forces and vigilante groups in Java, Indonesia’s most populous island and the seat of the central government in Jakarta. The government sent police and military troops to the region to quell the protests.
Police arrested the seven defendants in the Papuan capital Jayapura in September 2019.
A month later, the seven were transferred to the city of Balikpapan on Borneo Island for “security reasons,” where they faced judgment in the Balikpapan district court. Verdicts in three trials are scheduled, beginning June 14, according to HRW.
“Indonesian authorities should recognize that given the global attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, sending peaceful activists to prison will only bring more international attention to human rights concerns in Papua,” Adams said.
Rights groups’ concerns
Human rights groups, including London-based TAPOL, have urged the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to release the detainees.
In April, more than 60 political prisoners, mostly Papuan activists detained over pro-independence protests, wrote a letter to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and three U.N. special rapporteurs, asking for help in urging Indonesia to release them unconditionally.
The Papua region was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-administered ballot known as the Act of Free Choice. Many Papuans and rights groups said the vote was a sham because it involved only 1,000 people.
The provinces of Papua and West Papua make up one-fifth of Indonesia’s land mass but only 5.9 million of Indonesia’s 250 million people live there.
Tensions rose in Papua in December 2018 after separatist rebels allegedly killed 19 members of a crew building a highway in Nduga regency. Authorities immediately sent more than 750 soldiers and police to the region.