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(New York) – The Indonesian government should immediately release more than a dozen Papuans detained for raising the Papuan “Morning Star” flag in Fakfak, a major city in western Papua, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the Indonesian government to launch an investigation into the excessive use of force by the Indonesian police, who beat and kicked the activists during the arrests on July 19, 2008.

“Once again, the Indonesian authorities have stopped Papuans from peacefully expressing their political views,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The police should not resort to violence to suppress political activism.”

Police arrested 46 Papuans during a flag-raising ceremony at 4:30 a.m. on July 19 outside a government archive office, locally known as the “Act of Free Choice” building. The protesters organized the flag-raising ceremony very early in the morning, apparently to avoid police detection. Those arrested included two ex-political prisoners and two women. Eleven others were arrested on their way to the ceremony. Police have released 37 of the group, but arrested five more activists on July 23.

According to local human rights workers, during the arrests the police beat and kicked almost all of the men. They also allege that the police subjected the Papuans to humiliating treatment by forcing the men to strip to their underwear on the street before taking them by truck to the Fakfak police station. An eyewitness at the police station said detainees had bruises on their faces and bodies. Two detainees showed bleeding inside their right eyes.

Abubakar Nataprawira, a national police spokesman, denied the beating but said the police will look into allegations regarding the eye injuries. He also denied that those arrested were forced to strip.

Police charged six of the 46 with subversion for threatening the state by raising a “separatist” flag. Those charged are Simon Tuturop, Tadeus Weripang, Viktor Tuturop, Tomas Nimbitkendik, Benedidiktus Tuturop, and Teles Piahar. Subversion under Indonesia’s criminal code carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The criminal code is a legacy of the Netherlands Indies’ criminal code passed by the Dutch parliament in 1918 and adopted as Indonesian law in the 1950s after independence.

“Charging people with subversion, a crime punishable by life imprisonment in Indonesia, is an outrageous response to the peaceful political act of raising a flag,” said Pearson. “The unlawful acts at the scene were by police beating up protesters.”

Human Rights Watch also urged the authorities to drop charges of arms possession against three of the detainees, Walter Warpopor, 60, Daniel Nimbitkendik,19, and Simon Hindom, 50. Though the three had a knife, a bow and arrow, and a bush machete in their possession, it is common for villagers in Papua to carry such items. There is no evidence that they planned to use those weapons for violence.

Repression against political activists in Papua and the Maluku Islands has increased since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took power in 2004. In a visit to Ambon, the capital of the Maluku Islands, on June 29, 2007, Yudhoyono ordered security forces to arrest a group of 24 dancers who had unfurled the South Maluku Republic flag. Of those arrested, Johan Teterisa is serving a life sentence for subversion, and 19 others are serving sentences of between 10 and 20 years.

In March 2008, police arrested and jailed nine Papua activists for displaying the Papuan Morning Star flag. Their trial, on charges of subversion, is ongoing and the nine remain in detention.

Human Rights Watch called on the Indonesian government to immediately release all persons imprisoned for exercising their rights to free expression, free association or peaceful assembly in Papua and the Maluku Islands and drop all charges against the Fakfak protesters.

For many years, Human Rights Watch has called for the amendment of the Indonesian criminal code to repeal provisions that violate basic freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

In July 2007, Human Rights Watch welcomed the ruling of the Indonesian Constitutional Court declaring unconstitutional certain provisions in prohibiting free expression in Indonesia’s criminal code . Despite the ruling, several Indonesian laws continue to restrict freedom of expression in violation of international law, including article 6 of Government Regulation 77/2007, which prohibits the display of the Morning Star flag in Papua, the South Maluku Republic flag in Ambon and the Crescent Moon flag in Aceh.

“Indonesian governments continue to use outdated laws restricting free expression to suppress peaceful dissent in far-flung provinces,” said Pearson. “The government should rewrite these laws, not use them against peaceful protesters.”

The internationally protected rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are codified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia ratified in 2006.

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