The Indonesian government released high-profile Papuan political prisoner Filep Karma, who spent 11 years behind bars for raising the Morning Star flag – a West Papua independence symbol. This raises hopes that others arrested for exercising their rights to free expression and association in Indonesia may also be released.
Karma was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison, and his release is the result of a sentence remission. In November 2011, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called him a political prisoner and asked the Indonesian government to release him “immediately and unconditionally.” Indonesia rejected the recommendation.
Some hope that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s willingness to release Karma shows that his government may finally make meaningful moves to empty Indonesian prisons of its dozens of other political prisoners. In May, Jokowi announced clemency for five Papuan political prisoners while visiting Papua’s provincial capital of Jayapura. However, the nongovernmental organization Papuans Behind Bars lists a total of 38 Papuans who are locked up or awaiting trial on charges that violate their freedom of expression and association. There are an estimated 29 other political prisoners in the Moluccas Islands, according to the most recent estimates issued by the Tamasu human rights group.
Most of Indonesia’s political prisoners were convicted of makar, that is, rebellion or treason. Both the Papuan Morning Star flag and the “Benang Raja” (rainbow) flag of the Republic of the South Moluccas are banned, along with other symbols, flags, and logos that have the same features as separatist movements. Many such prisoners have been sentenced to 10 years or more in prison. In many cases the activists were tortured by police while in pretrial detention. Some have faced mistreatment and were denied medical treatment. The government justifies its arrest of Papuan activists as part of its ongoing armed conflict with the Free Papua Movement (OPM). Tensions heightened in Papua in February 2013 following a suspected OPM attack on Indonesian military forces that killed eight soldiers – the worst act of violence against the military in the area in more than 10 years.
Jokowi should make the release of all of Indonesia’s remaining political prisoners a political priority. Until he does, every one of those political prisoners makes a mockery of Indonesia’s claim to be a rights-respecting nation.