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(New York) -- Human Rights Watch today condemned the murder of Papuan independence leader Theys Eluay and called for a high-level investigation into his death.

Eluay was abducted outside Jayapura, the capital of Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) on Saturday night [November 10], en route home from a ceremony marking Heroes Day at the local headquarters of Kopassus, the Indonesian army’s Special Forces. He was the chair of the Papua Presidium Council, a forum for the peaceful achievement of independence.

"This was clearly a well-planned assassination of one of Papua’s best-known leaders," said Sidney Jones, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. "We are calling on President Megawati to immediately establish a competent and impartial commission of inquiry into Eluay’s murder, preferably with international participation."

According to local sources, Theys Eluay’s last hours began with his attendance at the provincial government’s Heroes Day reception at the Hotel Matoa in Jayapura at 6 p.m. From the hotel, he went directly to the Kopassus event in Hamadi, South Jayapura. He called his wife on his cell phone as he was leaving to tell her he was on the way home.

At 10:10 p.m., Eluay’s driver, Aristoteles Masoka, made an anguished call to Eluay’s home saying that Eluay had been abducted by "amber" – a local word for non-Papuans – in a place known as Skyline, the highest point around, between the villages of Entop and Kotaraja, located some ten kilometers from Jayapura.

As the driver was speaking, the phone was cut off, according to Eluay’s family. His whereabouts are not known, and as he is the only eyewitness aside from the perpetrators, there are grave fears for his safety.

The family immediately called the police, and on Sunday morning, Theys’ body was found together with his car in Koya, about nine kilometers from the Papua New Guinea border. Police took the body back to Jayapura for autopsy. The results of the autopsy were not public as of this writing.

The motivation for the killing was not clear. The Papua Presidium last week had strongly rejected a law passed by the Indonesian parliament giving Papua political autonomy and a large share of locally-generated revenue, including from oil, gas, and mining. On December 1, Eluay was planning a public event to mark the anniversary of a December 1, 1961 declaration of independence by Papuan separatists. He had been arrested in the past for participating in pro-independence ceremonies on that day.

Eluay was a controversial figure. He had been the foremost Papuan champion of integration with Indonesia in 1969 when a fraudulent exercise in self-determination, known as the "Act of Free Choice", was conducted. Eluay was one of 1,025 tribal leaders hand-picked by the Indonesian government to represent the Papuan people in that referendum.

He later suggested he had been coerced into supporting integration. In an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation on May 31, 2001, Eluay said:

"During those days, especially during the so-called Act of Free Choice I myself for instance, I was taken from my home in the middle of night without my wife and children knowing about it, why I was taken and where I was being taken to. When I arrived to where the others were being interned we were all drilled that the province of West Irian, which it was called at the time belonged to the Republic of Indonesia, was an integral part of the Republic, we were not allowed to say anything else. We had to go along with that, we had to give in to the intimidation."

He then became a member of the provincial parliament, representing the ruling party, Golkar, and was seen in the 1980s and early 1990s as having close ties to the local military. He was appointed by the governor of Irian Jaya in the late 1990s to head the Irian Jaya Customary Council, a council of traditional leaders.

After President Soeharto resigned in May 1998, Eluay became an active supporter of independence, although he was still distrusted by many in the activist community. He was particularly disliked by the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), a guerrilla group fighting since the 1970s for the independence of the country they call West Papua. Not only were they wary of his past ties with the government and military, but once he started for working for independence through peaceful advocacy, they felt it undermined their armed struggle.

But Eluay rapidly developed into a charismatic independence leader, with strong support particularly from Papua's coastal, as opposed to highland, peoples. His popularity as well as the power of his peaceful actions in support of independence made him the subject of close government scrutiny.

On October 6, 1998, Theys Eluay was arrested together with five other pro-independence leaders and charged with having organized pro-independence demonstrations that had broken out across Irian Jaya the previous July. After massive popular pressure, he was eventually released, but the charges were not officially dropped.

In late November 2000, he was arrested again and again charged with rebellion. The police cited a gathering at Theys’ home in Sentani, outside Jayapura, on November 12, 1000 at which he called for independence, and his role in an independence flag-raising ceremony on December 1, 1999.

Eluay and other leaders went on trial in Jayapura in May 2001 but were not detained after the trial began. The trial was still ongoing at the time Eluay was killed. On Monday, November 12, he and his co-defendants were scheduled to be back in court to hear the last three witnesses presented by the prosecution.

Theys Eluay was sixty-four. He is survived by a wife and seven children.

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