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Indonesian Lawyer Wanted over Papua Unrest Defiant in Face of Threats

Ahmad Syamsudin
Jakarta
2019-11-21
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Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman answers questions during an interview with the Reuters news service in Australia, Oct. 22, 2019.
Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman answers questions during an interview with the Reuters news service in Australia, Oct. 22, 2019.
[Screengrab from Reuters video]

An Indonesian lawyer who is wanted by police in her home country for alleged incitement of violence because she disseminated information via Twitter about recent unrest in Papua says she’s a target of online threats.

During anti-Jakarta protests and violence that convulsed Indonesia’s easternmost region in late August and September, Veronica Koman, through her feed on the social media channel, was a source for regular information about the situation in Papua and West Papua. The neighboring provinces are largely closed off to Western media and information there is tightly controlled by Indonesian authorities.

Koman, a 31-year-old human rights defender and Indonesian of Chinese descent who lives in Australia, says she has been the target of death and rape threats as well as racist and misogynistic abuse via social media. She’s even been called a traitor because of her tweets about the situation in Papua and a crackdown on pro-Papuan independence activists in Surabaya, East Java that sparked weeks of protests.

“I’m not mad or hold grudges. I knew it was coming,” she told BenarNews in a phone interview from Australia.

“I have made it my personal mission to inform other people about the situation in Papua,” she said, adding, “There’s been impunity in Papua because people are not aware of what’s going on. If we could expose more human rights abuses there, the situation would not be this bad.”

Koman takes things in stride and even jokes about her status as a fugitive in the eyes of police in Indonesia. They have charged her with inciting unrest through her messages on Twitter.

“Gonna tell my kids that this was when I was named Citizen of the Year,” she quipped in a tweet Wednesday that featured an image of police displaying a large photograph of Koman at a press conference.

The human rights defender has more than 45,000 followers on Twitter.

A non-Australian citizen, Koman lives Down Under with her foreign husband whose nationality she declined to reveal. During the unrest, she would send out her tweets from Australia after gathering information from her Papuan contacts in the Papua region and elsewhere in Indonesia.

In September, Indonesian police declared Koman a fugitive and said they would seek Interpol’s cooperation to arrest her.

Koman said that she goes about her daily life as usual and is not in hiding. Last week, she attended a rally in Australia to protest against the police killing of an Aboriginal teenager.

“I’m not guilty so I’m not running, but I will not surrender myself either,” she told BenarNews.

“I have never been contacted by Indonesian or Australian authorities,” she said, adding she never got the two summonses that police said they had sent her.

Last month, the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) honored Koman with the Sir Ronald Wilson Human Rights Award. In its citation, it recognized her for documenting and disseminating information about the situation in Papua, exposing rights violations in that region, and providing legal representation for Papuans in trouble with the Indonesian authorities.

“Amid the recent internet blackout and mass demonstrations in West Papua Ms. Koman disseminated information about the escalating situation on social media and functioned as a key source of information to the outside world,” ACFID said in naming her a recipient of the award on Oct. 23.

The award honors Koman for the “courage she has shown to continue to stand up for the human rights of West Papuans … despite intensifying harassment and intimidation,” the council said in a news release.

ACFID also called on the Australian government to provide Koman with protection “to which she is entitled as a human rights defender.”

A police officer raises his rifle as the local market burns during a protest in Fakfak, a regency in Indonesia’s West Papua province, Aug. 21, 2019. [AP]
A police officer raises his rifle as the local market burns during a protest in Fakfak, a regency in Indonesia’s West Papua province, Aug. 21, 2019. [AP]

‘We really hope that she would come’

In Indonesia, authorities have accused Koman of spreading misinformation through her social media posts about police treatment of Papuan student protesters in Surabaya in August.

News about allegations that security forces had treated the Papuan students harshly and hurled racist abuse at them ignited mass protests, some of which descended into violence in Papua and West Papua.

Weeks of unrest in the region left more than 40 people dead. Police have charged six activists with treason for flying the banned Papuan separatist Morning Star flag during a rally demanding a referendum on self-determination in Jakarta in August.

In Jakarta, national police spokesman Argo Yuwono urged Koman to turn herself in.

“We have communicated it with the international relations division [at the national police] to make her available for questioning. We really hope that she would come,” Argo told BenarNews.

“If she refuses to come, well what else can we do? We have to respect rules,” he added.

The provinces of Papua and West Papua make up one-fifth of Indonesia’s land mass. Only 5.9 million of Indonesia’s 250 million people live there.

The region has been the scene of a low-level separatist conflict since it 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.

Indonesian forces have been accused of gross human rights violations in its anti-insurgency campaign.

Koman, who supports a vote on self-determination for Papua, said she had in the past two years received threats from “state and non-state actors” for her work exposing abuses by security forces and defending pro-independence activists in the region.

The Indonesian government has restricted access to Papua for foreign journalists, citing concerns for their security.

Koman said she was not always into activism and was once an ultranationalist herself.

“I used to have the belief that the integrity of Indonesia was not negotiable,” she said. “But then I read a lot of papers, including those by academics from foreign universities, and I was shocked to find how bad the situation was.”

“Since I found out that many Papuans feel that they are being colonized by Indonesia, I started to question my nationalism. To date I have never found a Papuan who doesn’t want independence,” she said.

Koman said she hoped that someday she could return to her home country to be reunited with her family and resume her work as lawyer.

“I’m sad because my family, my friends and my work are there. Now I can’t practice law and do advocacy work on the ground,” she said.

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