In early May violence once again struck in Papua. This time the perpetrators were neither the security forces nor the armed resistance group the Free Papua Movement (OPM), but Abepura prison guards. They went on a rampage, and 18 prisoners escaped during the commotion. Afterward, Justice Minister Patrialis Akbar, promised a full-scale inquiry into the prison's management.
The riot appears to have been triggered by news that the prison's warden, Anthonius Ayorbaba, was being transferred to Sumatra. Human Rights Watch has long expressed concerns about Ayorbaba over abuses committed against prisoners by guards during his tenure.
On May 3, according to local media reports, several Abepura prison officers and Ayorbaba supporters attacked a ceremony welcoming the new warden, Liberthy Sitinjak. Jack Wanane, a civil servant in the Ministry of justice and Human Rights, hosted the ceremony. Hana Hiyokabi, a member of the Papuan People's Council and a distant relative of Ayorbaba's, slapped Wanane in the face. Hiyokabi was reportedly concerned about a non-Papuan taking over the job. Hiyokabi and others, including prison guards, pursued both Sitinjak and Nasaruddin Bunas, head of the ministry's Papua office, then destroyed property at the prison facilities.
Ayorbaba had been the most senior prison official in Abepura since August 2008, overseeing a litany of abuses. Less than a year after he assumed the post, HRW documented more than two dozen cases of beatings and physical abuse at Abepura. Back in June 2009, Bunas had defended Ayorbaba, denying our allegations of abuse.
For instance, a political prisoner, Ferdinand Pakage, lost an eye after a particularly severe beating by the prison's security chief and a guard in September 2008. Pakage's family tried to report the case to the Jayapura Police, but they demurred, telling the family to contact the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. The ministry took no serious disciplinary action. Herbert Toam, the guard responsible for the damage to Pakage's eye, did not work between October 2008 and March 2009, but he continued to draw his monthly salary, and he returned to work in April 2009.
This was just one of several beatings meted out to both political and ordinary prisoners. On May 11 last year, an Abepura guard beat a prisoner for possessing a mobile phone, causing severe bleeding from his left ear and partial hearing loss. Witnesses said the same guard beat two other prisoners who had used the mobile phone and forced one of them to put his hand into boiling water.
Last month, the Papuan office of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) conducted an unannounced visit to the prison and recommended that the government transfer Ayorbaba without delay. The commission confirmed that guards frequently beat prisoners and found that prison security was poor and that many prisoners had been able to escape.
Under Ayorbaba's tenure, prison authorities also refused to transfer Filep Karma, another political prisoner, who needed treatment available only in Jakarta for a severe bladder infection. Ayorbaba contended he didn't have the authority or funds to allow the transfer.
But simply transferring an abusive official and investigating this month's riot is insufficient. Ayorbaba should be suspended pending disciplinary action or prosecution. Ministry officials should open a formal, transparent investigation into all credible complaints of abuse raised by human rights groups and the families of prisoners, and take effective disciplinary action against Ayorbaba and all prison officials found to be responsible. Local groups should be able to conduct regular prison visits and talk with prisoners on a confidential basis.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should reconsider the tight restrictions that prevent foreign human rights monitors, journalists and diplomats from visiting Papua without prior approval. The government expelled the International Committee of the Red Cross from Papua in April 2008. It should invite the Red Cross to return and visit Abepura prison in accordance with its regulations.
As the recent riot shows, if state officials can commit abuses with impunity, this threatens not only the safety and well-being of detainees but also critically undermines public order. It will take a concerted effort from government officials and local stakeholders, as well as outside scrutiny, to remedy this dangerous situation. Indonesia cannot afford to wait a moment longer to begin that effort.
Elaine Pearson is the acting director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.