(Jakarta) – Indonesian authorities should promptly and impartially investigate the apparent use of unnecessary lethal force by security forces against peaceful protesters in Papua on December 8, 2014, Human Rights Watch said today.
Police and military personnel fired live ammunition at about 800 peaceful demonstrators, including women and children, in the town of Enarotali in Panai regency. Five protesters – Simon Degei, 18; Otianus Gobai, 18; Alfius Youw, 17; Yulian Yeimo, 17; and Abia Gobay (age unknown) – died from gunshot wounds. At least 17 others, including five primary school children, were wounded and required hospitalization. Human Rights Watch interviewed two witnesses to the incident, as well as journalists and a human rights activist in towns closest to this remote area.
“The Indonesian government needs to investigate why security forces found it necessary to fire into a crowd of peaceful protesters,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Ordinary Papuans are too often victims of security force abuse for which no one is ever punished.”
The protest was sparked by a brawl several hours earlier, on the evening of December 7, when members of Tim Khusus 753 (Special Team 753), a unit attached to the Nabire-based Army Battalion 753, assaulted 12-year-old Yulianus Yeimo. The attack was apparent retaliation after a group of children and young people, including Yeimo, shouted at a Tim Khusus 753 vehicle to turn on its headlights as it passed the group, whose members were decorating a Christmas tree and nativity scene in Enarotali’s Ipakiye neighborhood.
The Tim Khusus 753 vehicle soon returned with another truck filled with Indonesian soldiers, who chased the group and caught and beat Yeimo with their rifle butts. Yeimo’s condition is unknown. The others alerted nearby adults, who began throwing stones at the military personnel, prompting them to flee.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of December 8, about 800 Papuan young men, women, and primary school children gathered on Enarotali’s Karel Bonay football field in front of the local police station (Polsek) and military command (Koramil) to demand an explanation for the attack on Yeimo. The protesters, some carrying ceremonial Papuan hunting bows that have a purely ritual function, expressed their grievance through a traditional Papuan waita dance, which involves shouting, running in circles and mimicking birdsong.
The police ordered the protesters to disperse and then struck them with batons and sticks when they refused to comply, witnesses said. The Papua police chief Inspector General, Yotje Mende, told the media that his officers were only “securing” their station because it was under attack. A witness told Human Rights Watch that he saw six or seven Indonesian officers chasing protesters, who ran to a nearby airfield. Between 9:30 and 9:40 a.m., the witnesses heard gunshots and saw security force personnel, including police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) officers, bearing rifles. Some of the shots were fired from the nearby police and military posts, about 50 meters from the field, witnesses said. It was only around seven minutes, according to a witness in the field. It is unclear if the police fired any warning shots before firing into the crowd.
Indonesian government officials offered conflicting accounts of the violence. Security Affairs Minister Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno said that the security forces had warned the protesters to disperse and that security forces had fired into the crowd “to defend themselves” from “a bunch of people fighting the authorities.” The Papua police spokesman, Sulistyo Pudjo, indicated that the violence was the security forces’ response to an attack on local police and military posts, but said he was unaware of the circumstances of the protesters’ deaths. "Suddenly there were victims, and we did not know who shot them,” Pudjo told Agence France Press.
Witnesses said that when the shooting stopped, women and children on the scene immediately called for emergency medical assistance. They helped bring the wounded to the public hospital in the town of Madi, about 6 kilometers from Enarotali. The witnesses said they did not see any police or military personnel provide medical assistance to the wounded or help them to get to the hospital. There are no reports of injuries to security forces on the scene.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which set out international law on the use of force in law enforcement situations, provide that security forces shall as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable the authorities should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life. Governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense.
Human rights abuses remain rife in Papua, located in the extreme eastern of the Indonesian archipelago. Over the last 15 years, Human Rights Watch has documented hundreds of cases in which police, military, intelligence officers, and prison guards have used unnecessary or excessive force when dealing with Papuans taking part in protests. While a handful of military tribunals have been held in Papua to try security force personnel implicated in abuses, the charges have been inadequate and soldiers who committed abuses continue to serve in the military.
The Indonesian government has deployed military forces in Papua since 1963 to counter a long-simmering independence movement and restricts access to international media, diplomats, and nongovernmental groups by requiring them to obtain special access permits, which are rarely granted. Tensions heightened in Papua following the February 21, 2013 attack on Indonesian military forces by suspected elements of the armed separatist Free Papua Movement. The attack resulted in the deaths of eight soldiers, the most in the area in more than 15 years.
President Joko Widodo, who succeeded President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on October 20, 2014, pledged to lift the punitive restrictions on international access to Papua. On June 5, during the election campaign, when asked by local residents if, as president, he would open access to Papua for foreign journalists and international organizations, Widodo replied, “Why not? It’s safe here in Papua. There’s nothing to hide.” Widodo has yet to lift those access restrictions.
“The killing of five teenagers in Enarotali is just the latest atrocity by Indonesian security forces in Papua,” Kine said. “President Widodo should recognize that Papua is anything but ‘safe’ for its residents until the government puts an end to the routine and often-deadly abuses by the Indonesian forces stationed there.”