Human Rights Watch today called on Indonesian authorities to stop harassing organizers of peaceful rallies in Irian Jaya, where a popular pro-independence movement has publicly emerged over the past two years. But the international rights group also welcomed steps the new administration of Abdurrahman Wahid has taken toward respecting basic rights in the province.

"President Wahid government has taken a fresh approach and made a long-overdue commitment to respecting basic rights in Papua, but the reality still does not match the rhetoric," said Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Protesters, including some of Papua's leading citizens, continue to be targeted for organizing peaceful rallies."

In a new 38-page report, "Human Rights and Pro-Independence Actions in Papua, 1999-2000," Human Rights Watch details the eruption of independence demands in the province following Soeharto's forced resignation in May 1998, and documents the inconsistent and at times repressive government response. (President Abdurrahman Wahid renamed the province "Papua" in a visit on January 1, 2000, in deference to the wishes of the indigenous population of the island, but the Indonesian parliament has yet to officially endorse the name change.)

The report in particular credits Wahid, who took office in October 1999, with releasing political prisoners and announcing that peaceful political expression, including expression of pro-independence views, would no longer be treated as a criminal offense. Wahid has also stated unambiguously that the Indonesian government would not recognize Papuan demands for independence.

Papua, Indonesia's largest province, comprising more than one-fifth of the country's total land area, was first put under Indonesian control in 1963. It was formally incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 in a still-controversial U.N.-approved process. For many years, the province was categorized as a military combat zone and under an effective state of martial law, ostensibly because of the threat posed by the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM), an armed group engaged in a generally low-level guerrilla campaign for independence. At the same time, many Papuans sought to express their support for independence through peaceful means, notably the symbolic public raising of the "Morning Star" flag which had first flown openly when local people sought to free the territory from Dutch colonial rule in 1961.

Under Soeharto, such flag-raising ceremonies and other pro-independence manifestations were ruthlessly suppressed. Demonstrators were forcibly dispersed and assaulted, and leading activists were subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention. Such activists frequently were prosecuted and imprisoned under harsh laws dealing with subversion and rebellion, as well as the notorious "hate sowing" articles of the Indonesian penal code.

Indigenous Papuans, who are Melanesians and darker-skinned than the numerically and politically dominant Javanese and members of most other ethnic groups in Indonesia, were also subject to ethnic and racial discrimination. While Indonesian rule brought unprecedented economic development, it also resulted in an influx of immigrants from other parts of Indonesia and caused resentment among Papuans as the benefits went disproportionately to foreign investors and these immigrants. When Soeharto was forced from power in May 1998, many of these long repressed sentiments could be made public for the first time.

The strength of pro-independence sentiment was unmistakable as early as February 1999, when 100 Papuan leaders met with then-President Habibie to initiate what was being hailed as a "National Dialogue" on Papuan concerns. But the leaders presented President Habibie with a single demand: independence. This clearly shocked and displeased the Habibie government, which had encouraged the National Dialogue up to then, and the process was soon suspended. In April 1999, the government reverted to the methods used during the Soeharto era, attempting to round up independence supporters and censor discussion of the subject. The crackdown included bans on expression, assembly, and association, arbitrary arrests, and widespread intimidation of independence supporters.

Since his election, President Abdurrahman Wahid has initiated a number of reforms. Openly acknowledging the errors of the past, the new administration released political prisoners, and moved quickly to allow greater freedom, including open expression of pro-independence views. In practice, however, the government has been inconsistent. While it has permitted a number of peaceful demonstrations, other such rallies have been forcibly dispersed by police with resulting injuries to demonstrators. Likewise, even as Indonesia's Minister for Law and Legislation announced on December 13, 1999 that all Papuan political prisoners would be released, five men involved in a peaceful flag-raising which had taken place in the town Genyem on July 1, 1999, were charged with rebellion by a state prosecutor in Jayapura. Although those charges eventually were dropped, authorities are now investigating a series of peaceful flag-raising ceremonies held throughout the province on December 1, 1999 and nine people already have been named as suspects.