Indonesian Police Arrest Papuan Independence Activist for Suspected Treason over 2019 Unrest

Tria Dianti
Indonesian Police Arrest Papuan Independence Activist for Suspected Treason over 2019 Unrest People gather as shops burn in the background during an anti-Jakarta protest in Wamena, Papua, Indonesia, Sept. 23, 2019.

Indonesian police arrested a pro-independence activist in Papua on suspicion of treason and sedition in connection with anti-Jakarta demonstrations that turned into deadly riots in the region two years ago, authorities said Monday.

The arrest of Victor Yeimo, chairman of the National Committee for West Papua (KNPB), a Papuan civilian organization that seeks a referendum on self-determination for Papua, occurred over the weekend amid escalating tensions in the far-eastern region.

Indonesia’s president has ordered a crackdown on Papuan armed separatist rebels after they assassinated the government’s intelligence chief for the region in late April.

Yeimo was picked up on Sunday in the provincial capital, Jayapura, after being a fugitive for nearly two years, said M. Iqbal Alqudusy, a police spokesman for a counter-insurgency task force known as Operation Nemangkawi.

“He was named a suspect based on witness testimony who described him as the leader of the demonstrations, who gave speeches about independence for Papua,” Iqbal told BenarNews.

Yeimo, 42, faces up to 12 years if convicted of charges of treason, police said.

His arrest was not his first brush with the law.

In 2009, Yeimo was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for leading a rally demanding a referendum on self-determination for Papua. The mainly Melanesian populated region, which comprises Papua and West Papua provinces, was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-administered ballot.

In 2019, more than 40 people were killed in Papua during demonstrations and riots sparked by the perceived harsh and racist treatment of Papuan students by government security personnel in Java that August.

Inspector General Mathius Fakhiri, the police chief of Papua, said Yeimo had fled to neighboring Papua New Guinea after the 2019 unrest.

“Yeimo admitted that he returned to Jayapura in September 2020,” quoted Fakhiri as saying.

On August 19, 2019, Yeimo shouted “Free Papua” as he gave a speech in front of the provincial governor’s office, Fakhiri said, accusing Yeimo of being the “mastermind” of mass demonstrations that “ended in anarchism and damage to public facilities.”

In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded the Papua region – which makes up the western half of New Guinea Island – and annexed it.

Many Papuans and rights groups said the 1969 vote, known as Act of Free Choice, was a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people.

Last year, at least 13 Papuan activists and students were convicted for raising Morning Star flags – the symbol of the Papuan independence movement – during pro-referendum rallies in 2019 as part of nationwide protests against racism towards Papuans. They were sentenced to between nine and 11 months in prison on treason charges.

‘A far-fetched accusation’

Last month, the Indonesian government designated the Free Papua Movement (OPM) separatist group and its armed wing, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), as terrorists.

That happened after the TPNPB claimed responsibility for killing army Brig. Gen. I Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha Karya during a roadside ambush in Puncak regency on April 25. Putu Danny headed the Papua operation of the State Intelligence Agency.    

The TPNPB also said they had killed two teachers, a motorcycle taxi driver and a 16-year-old in separate incidents in April. The rebels said the civilians worked as spies for the government.

The killings prompted President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to order government forces to intensify operations against the rebels.

Sam Awom, the Papua coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS), called Yeimo’s arrest “arbitrary” and said it was a consequence of the government designating separatists as terrorists.

“We activists are very worried about this, because the designation [of Papuan rebels] as terrorists will not solve the problem. In fact, what the government has to do is open up as much space as possible for dialogue between the government and the OPM,” he told BenarNews, referring to the separatist Free Papua Movement.

By using the anti-terrorism law to go after the Papuan rebels, police will have powers to arrest more people because they do not need hard evidence, Awom said.

“There is huge potential for human rights violations such as forced detention and summary executions,” he said

Awom defended Yeimo, saying he had led a demonstration in Jayapura in September 2019 that ended peacefully.

“Victor being the mastermind of the riots is a far-fetched accusation, I think,” he said, urging the government to release all political prisoners instead.

Veronica Koman, an Indonesian lawyer who has represented Papuan activists in the past, said Yeimo’s arrest could lead to more trouble in the region.

“Indonesia is giving a momentum for West Papuans to take to the streets again. Anger has been building up since the terrorist labeling,” Koman said in a message posted on Twitter.

“Several organizations have announced they would mobilize if Victor Yeimo was not released.”


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