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(New York) - Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono should exonerate three Papuan men convicted of rebellion on November 12, 2009, for raising a pro-independence flag, Human Rights Watch said today.

Indonesian courts have long treated the raising of flags associated with pro-independence sentiment as a symbol of sovereignty and, as such, a banned form of expression. Human Rights Watch said that the prosecutions violate internationally protected rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly codified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia ratified in 2006.

Human Rights Watch urged Yudhoyono to drop the charges promptly to deter future arrests on these grounds. On November 18, police charged two more Papuans who raised a flag on November 16. More flag-raising ceremonies are expected in the days leading up to December 1, an anniversary that signifies independence for many Papuans.

"President Yudhoyono has a chance to show Papuans before the December 1 anniversary that Indonesia is a rights-respecting country that upholds free expression," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Yudhoyono should have these men freed without delay."

On November 12, a Manokwari district court convicted Roni Ruben Iba, Isak Iba, and Piter Iba, members of the Iba clan of makar (rebellion), for raising a pro-independence flag on January 1 outside the Bintuni Bay district government office near Manokwari, in West Papua province.

Police arrested them at 7:30 a.m. on January 1 after a flag-raising ceremony involving about 35 people, and they have been held in custody ever since. At their trial, the defendants said they had been mistreated during the arrest and at the Bintuni Bay police station. They said that police at the station kicked them, beat them, and used a rifle butt to strike them on their heads and bodies.

The court sentenced Roni Ruben Iba, a hotel security officer, to three years in prison, while Isak Iba, a civil servant, and Piter Iba, a farmer, received two years each.

The flag raised on January 1 resembled, but was not the same as, the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence that the courts have frequently convicted Papuan activists for raising. 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). Article 6 of Government Regulation 77/2007 prohibits the display of the Morning Star flag in Papua, as well as the South Maluku Republic flag in Ambon, and the Crescent Moon flag in Aceh, other areas with separatist movements.

However, a former Indonesian 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.

In the November 16 episode, police arrested and questioned two men for raising the Morning Star flag at the Papua People's Council in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province. They were protesting the failure of the special autonomy law and distributing flyers saying "Special autonomy has failed" and "Papua doesn't believe in Jakarta." On November 18, police charged them with rebellion.

Human Rights Watch said such arrests are likely to intensify around December 1. In 1961, under Dutch rule, an elected council consisting mostly of indigenous Papuans commissioned the creation of a national anthem and flag. On December 1, 1961, the Morning Star flag was flown beside the Dutch tricolor for the first time. Indonesia took control over Papua with United Nations recognition in 1969.

More than 170 people are currently imprisoned throughout Indonesia for peaceful expression, particularly in Papua and the Moluccas, where there are separatist movements. Some have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including two Papuan activists. Filep Karma is serving a 15-year sentence and Yusak Pakage a 10-year sentence, both for rebellion.

Human Rights Watch renewed its call for the Indonesian government to release without delay all persons detained for exercising the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and to remove archaic laws that criminalize these rights.

"President Yudhoyono needs to end the arrests of people for simply raising a flag," Pearson said. "These prosecutions fly in the face of Indonesia's commitments to free expression."

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