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(New York) - President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia should demonstrate his stated support for differing political viewpoints by dropping politically motivated criminal charges against activists from Papua province and ordering their release, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 23, 2009, a court in Nabire, Papua will resume the trial of 16 Papuans, mostly students and farmers associated with the West Papua National Committee, a political organization that seeks Papua's independence from Indonesia. They were arrested on April 6 in connection with a pre-election rally in Nabire and were charged under the criminal code with treason or rebellion (makar). Two Papuan student activists, Buchtar Tabuni and Seby Sembom, have also been imprisoned for their activities. Human Rights Watch renewed its call for the Indonesian government to remove archaic legal provisions that criminalize peaceful freedom of expression.

"Papua officials should stop using the criminal law for political purposes," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Now is the time for Yudhoyono to live up to his words and show Papuans he is serious about promoting tolerance of different political views."

At 3:30 a.m. on April 6, in an effort to stop the rally, police attacked and burned a camp site where students and farmers who planned to protest had gathered. In the melee that ensued, students threw stones and vandalized a police vehicle. Protesters tried to storm trucks carrying heavily armed Mobile Brigade officers, who responded with gunfire. Further enraged, the demonstrators began pelting police with projectiles and firing arrows.

Dozens of demonstrators were wounded by the gunfire, four of them seriously, including a 10-year-old boy. One policeman was wounded by an arrow. There has been no investigation into the acts of violence, and no specific charges relating to the violence have been brought against anyone, including members of the police. The 16 people detained that day have been held in custody since their arrest.

One of the 16, Monica Zonggonau, a 45-year-old housewife, was not even present at the demonstration, but had a symbol of Papuan independence, the outlawed Morning Star flag, stitched to her bag. Her lawyer said that the police arrested Zonggonau in a market near the demonstration and beat her with a rifle butt and a shoe. The police failed to provide any medical assistance to Zonggonau, who still suffers headaches as a result of the beatings, the lawyer said.

On July 14, the judge denied the defense counsel's request to dismiss legal proceedings against the 16 on various grounds, including that the arrests did not conform with legal procedures, that police did not give them access to legal representation or to interpreters (the defendants do not speak Indonesian Malay) when they were questioned in custody, and that neither the defendants nor their lawyers received the police documents relating to the charges until they appeared at court. The trial is to resume on July 23. One of the defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch he was only allowed to meet his clients when the trial began on June 18.

"Acts of violence should be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice, but simply charging activists with treason doesn't address these issues," said Pearson. "There are serious concerns that the Papuan activists have not had sufficient access to legal representation and that the trial does not meet international fair-trial standards."

There is a long history of suppression of peaceful activism in Papua. The offense of treason or rebellion is often invoked against persons alleged to have shown support for the armed separatist group, Organisasi Papuan Merdeka (Free Papua Organization or OPM) ( ). The government has made wide use of this vague "catch-all" offense, which contains extremely broad language and is punishable by up to life imprisonment, rather than prosecuting specific offenses, such as weapons possession, kidnapping, or murder.

The current trial follows a June 17 verdict by a Jayapura court in Papua sentencing student leader Buchtar Tabuni to three years of imprisonment on charges of inciting hatred (haatzai artikelen) against Indonesia. Tabuni helped organize a 2,000-strong rally on October 16, 2008, in Jayapura celebrating the establishment of the International Parliamentarians for West Papua in London, and delivered political speeches at two rallies on the campus of Cenderawasih University in Abepura. State prosecutors showed the Abepura court Tabuni's banners with political messages: "Referendum Yes, Special Autonomy No;" "We want International dialogue;" and "The UN Invasion of West Papua. We Want Peace." Prosecutors also charged that Tabuni produced Morning Star flags during the rallies.

Another student leader and colleague to Tabuni, Seby Sembom, is on trial in an Abepura court on the same charges related to the October 16 rally. Police arrested Sembom on December 17, 2008 in Sentani after Sembom held a news conference calling on the Indonesian police to release Tabuni.

Past President Abdurrahman Wahid once called the Morning Star flag a cultural symbol, and in 1999 and 2000 allowed the flag to be flown on the condition that it was raised alongside and lower than the Indonesian flag. Under the 2001 Papuan Special Autonomy Law, symbols of Papuan identity such as a flag or song are permitted, but Article 6 of Government Regulation 77/2007, prohibits the display of the Morning Star flag in Papua, the South Maluku Republic flag in Ambon, and the Crescent Moon flag in Aceh.

In a 2005 speech, Yudhoyono said he would solve Papuan problems "peacefully, fairly and with dignity," and in 2006 he said he would use "persuasion and dialogue" rather than violence in dealing with Papuan activists. In March 2009 at the London School of Economics, Yudhoyono said Indonesia is "not just a democracy by name - we are a vibrant democracy ... a functioning democracy that has maintained our brand of moderation and tolerance."

However, Yudhoyono's administration has intensified suppression of peaceful political activism in Papua. His government has stepped up the use of "hatred sowing" articles interpreting peaceful acts of protest and flag-raising as "showing hatred" toward government officials, state institutions, religious symbols, and state symbols - particularly in Papua and the Moluccas where there are separatist movements. More than 170 people are currently in jail throughout Indonesia for trying to exercise freedom of expression, 43 of them in Papua.

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. That same year, Indonesia secured membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council. This week at the Association of South East Asian Nations ministerial meeting in Phuket, Thailand, the Indonesian government pushed for the establishment of a regional Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. These are signs that Indonesia wants to be accepted as a rights-respecting member of the international community.

"If Indonesia really wants to be regarded as a rights-respecting nation, it should stop criminalizing peaceful acts of expression," said Pearson.

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