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Yanto Awerkion (far left) detained in the Timika police station in September 2017 for his role in organizing a petition calling on the UN to organize a referendum in Papua. 

Update: On February 6, 2019, Ruben Saija, a Moluccan political prisoner, was released from Ambon prison after President Joko Widodo issued him a pardon. Five political prisoners remain incarcerated in Ambon prison. 

(Jakarta) – Indonesian authorities should release and drop treason charges against three Papuan activists for peaceful advocacy in the Papua mining town of Timika, Human Rights Watch said today. The Indonesian government is currently imprisoning at least nine people from Papua and the Moluccan Islands for exercising their rights to freedom of expression.

Police in Timika arrested Yanto Awerkion, Sem Asso, and Edo Dogopia of the West Papua National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, KNPB), a student association, on December 31, 2018 when they were organizing a prayer gathering to commemorate the group’s fifth anniversary. Papuan human rights groups reported that the police arrested and beat nine KNPB members. On January 7, charges were only brought against the three for treason (makar) under articles 106 and 110 of the Criminal Code. Article 106 carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. They are currently being held in Papua’s capital, Jayapura.

“New police arrests of peaceful activists make a mockery of Indonesian government claims that it’s releasing the country’s political prisoners,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher. “The baseless charges against the three Papuan activists should be dropped and they should be released immediately.”

The KNPB, perhaps the largest indigenous youth organization in Papua and West Papua provinces, advocates for independence of their homeland through a United Nations-sponsored referendum. In 2017, Awerkion organized a petition calling on the UN to organize a referendum in Papua. Awerkion said that the petition was signed by over 1.8 million Papuans. The Indonesian authorities alleged the petition to be a hoax and charged Awerkion with a “treasonous petition.” In March 2018, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison, but was released late that month for time already served.

On January 3, 2019, more than 80 police without a warrant used batons to forcibly remove KNPB members from their office in Timika, dismantling their sign board, taking down a wall with a mural painted with pro-independence symbols, and repainting the entire building with the red-and-white color of the Indonesian flag. The police said that Papuans were not allowed to use any Free West Papua insignia or anything with the Morning Star flag, long a symbol of opposition to Indonesian rule.

Since the raid, the office has been used as a joint military-police post. The KNPB filed a lawsuit against the forced removal, contending that the police removed them without a court order to remove them. The police claim that the office was used for “shouting about freedom.”

The police crackdown occurred in the context of an attack by Papuan militants on December 2 that had killed at least 17 Indonesian construction workers in Nduga, in Papua’s Central Highlands. This has fostered a hostile atmosphere against pro-independence groups such as the KNPB.

There have been other acts of violence against KNPB offices. Unidentified assailants burned down the KNPB office in Asmat regency, near Timika, on December 1. The KNPB head office in Jayapura was vandalized on November 19 and December 2.

Over the last decade, the Indonesian government has released dozens of people imprisoned in Papua and the Moluccas Islands for peacefully expressing their political aspirations. In December, the Indonesian government released two Moluccan political prisoners, Johan Teterisa and Jonathan Riri, who had been imprisoned for treason for more than 11 years. They were among more than 60 activists arrested and imprisoned for treason since June 2007 after 28 of them staged a protest dance with the South Moluccan Republic flag in front of then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Ambon stadium. Now only six political prisoners, all Moluccan activists, are still imprisoned in Ambon, the Moluccas Islands, since their 2007 arrests with Teterisa and Riri.

In January 2018, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court rejected a judicial review to annul five treason articles, including articles 106 and 110, but found that those articles were often disproportionally applied against political activists raising the Morning Star flag in Papua. In its ruling, the court considered the 2011 ruling from the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on the arbitrary detention of Papuan activist Filep Karma, who was then serving a 15-year prison term for his 2004 peaceful protest against Indonesian rule. The working group concluded that articles 106 and 110 were applied disproportionally in the Karma trial.

“The big drop in political prisoners in recent years, from more than 110 people in 2014, is noteworthy for Indonesia’s progress as a rights-respecting country,” Harsono said. “But the new arrests in Papua show that Indonesian police are still abusing their authority by using their old tactics of misusing treason laws.” 

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