(Jakarta) - In the Central Highlands of remote Papua province, a region closed to outside observers, police appear to be routinely committing serious abuses, such as extrajudicial executions, torture and rape, with impunity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Endemic police abuse is deepening mistrust of the national government in Jakarta and potentially inflaming separatist tensions.
The 81-page report, “Out of Sight: Endemic Abuse and Impunity in Papua’s Central Highlands,” is the product of more than a year of research. The report documents daily abuses by police officers and other security forces in the mountainous and isolated Central Highlands area of the Indonesian province of Papua, located on the western half of the island of New Guinea.
A key finding of the report is that the police, particularly BRIMOB officers (Mobile Brigade police, the elite paramilitary corps used for emergencies), are responsible for the most serious rights violations in the region today, although some reports of brutal treatment by Indonesian soldiers continue to emerge.
“Conditions in Papua’s Central Highlands are an important test of how Indonesia’s security forces perform when political tensions are high and regions are closed to outside observers,” said Joseph Saunders, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “The police are failing that test badly.”
The new report follows Human Rights Watch’s report in February, “Protest and Punishment: Political Prisoners in Papua,” which documented severe restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association in Papua.
Many of the police abuses documented in the report were particularly cruel. One man told Human Rights Watch what happened when 12 BRIMOB officers arrested him and some friends for a peaceful independence flag raising:
My teeth fell out. Blood flowed out. I was hit. I was kicked twice and then in the stomach twice again. I was kicked in the nose, the mouth and the teeth. More kicks were ordered and this was repeated. I could not count the number of times. I saw all my friends given the same treatment. Blood was flowing from them and they were forbidden from going to the toilet. They ordered us to swallow our blood. My nose was bleeding. They ordered us to swallow the blood again. I do not know the name of the officer in command. They all punched us, taking turns.
Another man reported being beaten by the police while witnessing the arrest of another person:
I was beaten with the end of a gun on my back, and with fists to my face. My mouth and eyes were smashed and bleeding. I felt dizzy and fell. Straight away I was kicked by five members of the police and BRIMOB. They were all wearing complete official uniforms with guns ... I was barely conscious when five members of the police took me into the car. As they were taking me, they punched me to the back three times with rifle butts and then in the car I was beaten with a truncheon.
Human Rights Watch wrote to both the head of the police and the head of the military in Papua asking for information on all of the cases documented in the report, but received no response.
A lack of internal accountability and a poorly functioning justice system mean impunity for perpetrators of abuses is the norm in Papua.
“No one is being prosecuted for the crimes we documented,” said Saunders. “The police are acting as a law unto themselves.”
The Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua are closed to outside human rights observers. Journalists have extremely limited access. Many diplomats have told Human Rights Watch that they have little understanding of the situation in the provinces since there is not much independent reporting on conditions there. Reliable information on the remote Central Highlands region is even harder to come by.
Human Rights Watch called on the Indonesian government to open the provinces to independent observers in order to increase the amount and quality of information about conditions there and to allow independent and transparent investigations to take place.
“By keeping the region closed to outside scrutiny, officials in Jakarta are receiving biased and partial accounts of what is taking place,” said Saunders. “Reliable information is essential if officials are genuinely interested in identifying problems and finding lasting solutions.”
For years, the Central Highlands region has been the site of often tense confrontations between Indonesian police and military units and small cells of guerrillas from the separatist Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or OPM). The pro-independence guerrillas have conducted repeated low-level armed attacks against Indonesian security forces, which continue to conduct “sweeping” operations in civilian areas, spreading fear and panic and leading many villagers to flee their homes.