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Freed from Prison, Papuan Activist Vows to Keep Fighting for Independence

Gunawan and Ronna Nirmala
Balikpapan, Indonesia, and Jakarta
2020-08-12
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Papuan activist Agus Kossay (left) is joined by his sister and lawyer in front of the Balikpapan Detention Center, in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, following his release on his treason conviction over 2019 anti-Jakarta protests in Papua, Aug. 12, 2020.
Papuan activist Agus Kossay (left) is joined by his sister and lawyer in front of the Balikpapan Detention Center, in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, following his release on his treason conviction over 2019 anti-Jakarta protests in Papua, Aug. 12, 2020.
Gunawan/BenarNews

The last of seven Papuan activists was released from a detention center in Indonesian Borneo on Wednesday after serving a sentence on charges of treason for taking part in anti-Jakarta protests last year.

Agus Kossay said jail was like “a free hotel” that would not discourage him from carrying on with the separatist campaign for the Papua region.

“I will continue to fight for the freedom of all Papuan people,” Agus told BenarNews in front of the Balikpapan Detention Center in East Kalimantan after being released on Wednesday.

In June, the Balikpapan District Court sentenced Agus and six other pro-independence activists and students to 10 to 11 months in prison for treason linked to organizing and taking part in anti-Jakarta protests in Papua last year. All seven were credited for the nine months they had already spent behind bars.

The defendants were “proven to have committed treason with others,” the judges ruled in their verdicts.

The four students – Ferry Kombo, Hengki Hilapok, Irwanus Uropmabin and Alexander Gobai – were sentenced to 10 months and released in early July.

Co-defendants Stevanus Itlay and Buchtar Tabuni, who also were sentenced to 11 months, were released last week.

Agus said he and other activists were willing to risk imprisonment in their efforts for Papuan independence.

“For me, prison is like a free hotel. It will not discourage our fight,” said Agus, the chairman of the pro-independence West Papua National Committee (KNPB).

He said the Papua region, located at the far eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, had abundant wealth in natural resources to allow people to determine their own future.

“We have gold, forests, others. We will able to stand alone,” he said.

2019 protests

More than 40 people were killed in August and September 2019 after anti-government protests turned violent in Papua and West Papua provinces, which make up the Indonesian half of New Guinea Island.

The unrest was sparked by perceived heavy-handed and racist treatment of Papuan students by security personnel on Java Island. It prompted the government to send as many as 3,000 police and military troops to the Papua region, according to rights activists, and to block the internet for three weeks.

Officials said at the time that the blackout was intended to curb the spread of misinformation after protesters torched government buildings during the anti-government demonstrations.

The central government in Jakarta blamed the separatist United Liberation Movement of West Papua and the West Papua National Committee – Agus’s group – for the uprising, during which thousands of people joined protests calling for a vote on self-determination for the mainly Melanesian Papuan region.

On Wednesday, Agus urged the government to withdraw those additional officers sent to the region last year, saying there could be violence if they did not leave.

“We are not against the Indonesian government, only against the system that curbs Papuan freedom,” he said.

The activist admitted that his efforts were not universally backed in Papua.

“There are people in Papua who are not supportive, but it is our duty to make them understand,” he said.

The seven are not the only Papua activists to serve time behind bars.

In April, Jakarta District Court sentenced six others to prison after finding them guilty of treason for demanding a Papua referendum and waving separatist Morning Star flags in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta. The six, who had been in custody since August 2019, were freed a month later.

The Papua region was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a United Nations-administered ballot known as the Act of Free Choice. Many Papuans and rights groups said the vote was a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people.

Scholarship issue

Meanwhile, Veronica Koman, a human rights lawyer focusing on alleged abuses in Papua, asked Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati to be impartial in handling her case in which, Koman alleged, she was being forced to return hundreds of millions of rupiah of government-sponsored scholarships.

Koman said she had been ordered to return money granted by the Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP), a scholarship program managed by the Finance Ministry, totaling 773.8 million Rupiah (U.S $52,400), for failing to return to Indonesia after studying abroad.

“However I did return to Indonesia in September 2018 after completing a master’s of law program at the Australian National University,” said Koman, who lives in Australia.

In a statement to the media, she said that a month after returned to Indonesia, she joined the Jayapura-based Human Rights Lawyers Association for Papua.

In March 2019, she went to Switzerland to attend a U.N. event before returning to Indonesia.

“I provided pro-bono legal representation in court for West Papuan activists in three separate court proceedings in Timika, West Papua from April to May 2019. I then visited Australia on a three-month visa for a graduation ceremony held in July 2019,” she said.

While there, Koman said she was alerted that she had been summoned by the National Police for alleged incitement of violence over releasing information about unrest in Papua.

“I hereby call on the Indonesian Ministry of Finance led by world-renowned Sri Mulyani to not join a list of government institutions that persecute human rights defenders and to acknowledge my post-study return to Indonesia,” she said.

LPDP Director Rionald Silaban confirmed the order to return the funding, but declined to say if it was related to Koman’s activities related to Papua.

“Veronica is one of four scholarship recipients whom we asked for a refund,” Rionald told Tirto.id, an Indonesian news website.

He said Koman should have stayed and worked in Indonesia for a minimum of five years after completing her scholarship.

“It is in the contract. All the overseas scholarship recipients must return and serve in Indonesia,” he said. “Our policy is that you go home to help Indonesia, that’s the purpose.”

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