Last week an activist famous in Indonesia for peacefully advocating for the independence of the country’s Papua and West Papua provinces, Filep Karma, briefly became a political prisoner. Again.
This time around, Karma, who always wears the Morning Star symbol of West Papua independence on his shirt, was detained by a uniformed Indonesian Armed Forces officer after disembarking at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport.
What ensued was a 90-minute arbitrary detention in which seven Air Force officers, including one bearing a semi-automatic rifle, interrogated Karma about the symbol on his shirt. The officers insisted Karma remove that symbol from his clothing and asked if he was a member of the armed separatist Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM). According to Karma, throughout the interrogation, the officers verbally abused him, calling him “scoundrel,” “monkey,” and “moron.” They subsequently transferred Karma to the custody of airport police who released him without charge.
Karma, who spent 11 years behind bars after being convicted in 2005 of makar – rebellion or treason – for publicly raising the Morning Star flag, is no stranger to abuse at the hands of Indonesian authorities. In November 2011, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared him a political prisoner and demanded that the Indonesian government release him, “immediately and unconditionally.” The authorities only released him in November 2015.
Karma is just one of many Indonesians targeted under articles 106 and 110 of the Indonesian Criminal Code, which imposes multi-decade prison terms on peaceful protesters advocating independence or other peaceful political change. Many such arrests and prosecutions are of activists who raise banned symbols, such as the Papuan Morning Star or the South Moluccan RMS flags. (Human Rights Watch takes no position on whether Papua should be independent, but we oppose the imprisonment of people who peacefully express support for self-determination.)
Karma’s experience last week was an unwelcome reminder that his freedom remains at risk so long as rights-violating laws are on the books, and that there are Indonesian officials who would rather call him a “monkey” than respect his right to free expression.