Indonesian prosecutors are seeking a seven-year prison sentence for an environmental activist for allegedly raising pro-communist banners while peacefully protesting pollution linked to a local gold mine.

An illegal miner leaves a cave after mining for gold in the mountain of Tumpang Pitu in Banyuwangi, East Java on November 21, 2009.

© 2009 Sigit Pamungkas / Reuters
Prosecutors in Banyuwangi, East Java, argued in court on Monday that Heri Budiawan, a leader of the grassroots environmental organization Banyuwangi People’s Forum, displayed eight banners bearing the communist hammer-and-sickle symbol during an April 4, 2017 protest against the Tampung Pitu gold mine. Under Indonesia’s draconian anti-communism laws, anyone convicted of publicly supporting communism can be imprisoned for up to 12 years.

Budiawan’s prosecution is just the latest effort by local authorities to effectively criminalize protests against the mine. In 2016, after facing nearly a decade of protests, the Indonesian government declared the mine to be a “strategic national project,” making it harder to oppose.

At the trial the prosecutors failed to present evidence of any protest banners that bore the hammer-and-sickle symbol. Budiawan denies the allegations

Beyond this one case is the lingering peril posed by dangerously ambiguous laws, Dutch colonial legacies appropriated during the three-decade Suharto dictatorship, which give prosecutors wide latitude to prosecute public expressions of support for communism and display of communist symbols.

Budiawan’s prosecution for alleged communist sympathies coincides with a recent surge in efforts by elements of the Indonesian security forces to stoke “anti-communist” paranoia. This is a response to calls for accountability for the 1965-66 massacres, in which between 500,000 to one million people were killed by the military, paramilitary groups, and Muslim militias. Those targeted were suspected members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) and ethnic Chinese, as well as trade unionists, teachers, activists, and artists.

This past September, paramilitaries and Islamist groups led a violent “anti-communist” demonstration in Jakarta. Days later, the Indonesian military launched a propaganda offensive aimed at reinforcing the official narrative that the killings were a justified response to an attempted communist coup.

Budiawan’s prosecution is an ominous signal that environmental activists are now vulnerable to prosecution as “communists” if they dare challenge corporations implicated in pollution. As long as laws that facilitate such prosecutions stay on the books, the rights of peaceful protesters – including those seeking to defend the right to a healthy environment – will remain in doubt.