An Indonesian court sentenced six activists to prison on Friday after finding them guilty of treason for participating in a protest last year calling for a self-determination referendum in the restive Papua province.
Surya Anta, Ambrosius Mulait, Charles Kossay, Dano Tabuni, and Arina Elopere were ordered to serve nine months, while Isay Wenda was handed an eight-month prison term during a hearing at the Central Jakarta district court via video link to observe social distancing measures imposed to suppress the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The defendants are guilty of treason," Judge Agustinus Setya Wahyu Triwiranto said during the sentencing.
The activists were arrested in August 2019 after taking part in a rally in Jakarta. Prosecutors accused them of demanding a referendum on self-determination for Papua and waving separatist Morning Star flags in front of the presidential palace.
All but one of the activists are native Papuans.
The protest was among many held across the country amid unrest in Papua triggered by perceived ill-treatment of Papuans on Java island.
Barring an appeal by prosecutors, who had sought an 18-month sentence for each of the activists, Isay Wenda could be released next month, while the rest are expected to walk free in June.
“But I can’t be sure, because it [the release] depends on the prosecutor. If they appeal, it will be different,” Tigor Hutape, a lawyer for the activists, told BenarNews.
“We have not yet communicated with the defendants,” he said. “We will decide later whether to appeal or accept the verdict.”
More than 40 people were killed in the unrest between August and September 2019 in Papua and West Papua provinces, which make up the Indonesian half of New Guinea island.
Jakarta has blamed the separatist United Liberation Movement of West Papua and the National Committee for West Papua for the uprising that started in mid-August, when thousands joined protests calling for a vote on self-determination.
Police arrested dozens of pro-referendum Papuan activists in the wake of the unrest, which prompted authorities to send thousands of additional police and troops to the region.
Human rights groups have urged President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s government to release the detainees, whom they described as political prisoners, saying they were at risk of contracting COVID-19 during the pandemic.
On Friday, London-based human rights group TAPOL called for their immediate release, citing statements from Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who previously said political prisoners should be among the first to be released amid the pandemic.
“We therefore reiterate the urgency of releasing all political prisoners currently detained in overcrowded prisons where it is impossible to practice physical distancing,” the group said in a statement.
Indonesia reported 436 new infections on Friday, taking its cumulative tally to 8,211, with 42 new fatalities, bringing the country’s death toll to 689.
Earlier this month, more than 60 political prisoners, mostly the 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.
“Not only is their detention illegal, it also threatens their safety,” said Jennifer Robinson, one of the human rights lawyers representing them.
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 after the killings.