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Indonesia’s ‘Political Detainees’ in Papua Seek UN Help for Release

Ronna Nirmala and Tia Asmara
Jakarta
2020-04-16
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An Indonesian man kisses the ground as other inmates stand behind him after authorities ordered their release to avoid a surge in coronavirus infections in overcrowded prisons in Batang, Central Java province, April 2, 2020.
An Indonesian man kisses the ground as other inmates stand behind him after authorities ordered their release to avoid a surge in coronavirus infections in overcrowded prisons in Batang, Central Java province, April 2, 2020.
Antara Foto via Reuters

More than 60 political prisoners, mostly Papuan activists detained for pro-independence protests, wrote a letter to the United Nations for help in urging Indonesia to release them unconditionally, saying they were at risk of contracting the coronavirus, human rights lawyers said Thursday

The letter was sent Wednesday to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and three U.N. special rapporteurs, said Jennifer Robinson, one of the lawyers.

“Not only is their detention illegal, it also threatens their safety,” Robinson said in a statement, which explained that the joint appeal by the prisoners was accompanied by a 400-page document containing information on the detainees.

In their letter, the political prisoners – composed of 56 native Papuans, one non-Papuan, five from the Molucca islands and one Polish – provided some details of what they described as violations of international law allegedly committed by the Indonesian government, Robinson said.

Most of the prisoners were arrested during demonstrations in Papua and other areas at the end of 2019, during which they called for a referendum on self-determination for the mainly Melanesian region.

They are facing charges of treason and could be jailed up to 20 years in prison, if found guilty.

Security forces in Papua and West Papua, the country’s easternmost provinces, have been dealing with a low-level separatist conflict since the 1960s.

The region was rocked by weeks of violence in August and September 2019 after news about allegations that security forces on Java Island had mistreated Papuan students ignited mass protests. The unrest left more than 40 people dead.

The prisoners sought help from the United Nations more than two weeks after Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged governments worldwide to prevent a “catastrophic” spread of coronavirus infections in overcrowded prisons by releasing detainees.

The U.N. official said states should “release all those detained without a lawful basis, including those held in violation of human rights obligations.”

Early this month, Bachelet’s spokesman, Rupert Colville, also called on states to release “every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners, and those detained for critical, dissenting views.”

Colville, in a statement, noted that Indonesia had announced that it would free 30,000 individuals convicted of minor crimes, including drug use.

Indonesia’s tally of COVID-19 infections rose to 5,516 on Thursday, an increase of 380 cases over the past 24 hours, according to task force spokesman Achmad Yurianto. Health authorities recorded 27 new fatalities, taking the nation’s toll to 496, he said.

Globally, more than 2.1 million infections have been recorded with the death toll at over 140,000 as of Thursday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

As of March this year, Indonesia’s 524 prisons house almost 269,000 inmates, according to data from the Law and Human Rights Ministry. Local reports said the number of inmates was almost double the maximum capacity of the detention centers.

Officials from Indonesia’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights did not immediately return calls from BenarNews seeking comments on the letter from the political detainees.

Infections predicted to soar next month

A public health expert, Wiku Adisasmito, said Thursday that the nation’s coronavirus infections was predicted to soar to 95,000 as early as next month.

“We believe that the peak of the pandemic in Indonesia will begin in early May until early June,” Wiku, a member of country’s COVID-19 task force, told reporters.

Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer, who also signed the letter sent to the UN, said that a list of 56 political prisoners had been sent to Jokowi in February.

“So far we have not received any response, except that the minister said that the data is garbage,” Veronica told reporters, referring to Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs.

Indonesian police have named Veronica earlier as a suspect for allegedly provoking and distributing false information about the riots in the Papuan student dormitory in East Java province.

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