Papuan students shout slogans during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 28, 2019. Students and activists gathered for a protest supporting West Papua, calling for independence from Indonesia, and demanding racial justice in Surabaya, East Java. 

© 2019 Andrew Gal/NurPhoto via Getty Images
(Jakarta) – Indonesian authorities should drop treason charges and release at least 22 activists detained since August 2019 for peaceful acts of free expression concerning Papua, Human Rights Watch said today. These abusive prosecutions show backtracking by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration in dealing with the human rights situation in West Papua and Papua provinces.

Ahead of Papuan nationalists’ “Independence Day” on December 1, foreign diplomats and United Nations officials should monitor demonstrations in Papua and West Papua provinces and the law enforcement response.

“Papua may be a sensitive topic in Indonesia, but that’s no excuse for rounding people up and sending them to prison for peaceful acts of expression,” said Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should drop charges and immediately free people detained for just possessing flags or organizing a protest.”

Each year Papuans attempt to raise the Papuan national Bintang Kejora (“Morning Star”) flag. That frequently results in clashes with local security forces who consider this to be a treasonous activity against the Republic of Indonesia.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on Papuan claims to self-determination, but supports everyone’s right, including for independence supporters, to express their political views peacefully without fear of arrest or other forms of reprisal. The arrest and imprisonment of people for peacefully participating in symbolic flag-raising ceremonies amounts to arbitrary arrest and detention in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Indonesia is a party.

Indonesian authorities arrested the 22 people in August and September following at times violent demonstrations in Papua and West Papua provinces during which thousands of people took part in rallies protesting racism against Papuans. The protests took place after a video circulated of Indonesian militias racially abusing indigenous Papuan students outside their dormitory in Surabaya on August 17.

Papuans demonstrated in at least 30 cities across Indonesia, including Jakarta. Rioting Papuans burned down the local parliament building in Manokwari, as well as prisons in Sorong, West Papua province, and Jayapura, Papua province.

Most of the 20 men and 2 women awaiting trial in 4 cities are charged with treason (makar) under articles 106 and 110 of Indonesia’s Criminal Code. The maximum penalty under article 106 is 20 years in prison, which can be doubled if also convicted of mobilizing others to commit treason, under article 110. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has previously criticized articles 106 and 110 for being “drafted in such general and vague terms that they can be used arbitrarily to restrict the freedoms of opinion, expression, assembly and association.”

The authorities have also accused Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer who has tweeted videos and photographs of the unrest, of “provoking” the demonstrations. Indonesian police asked the Australian consulate in Surabaya “to track her down” in Australia and indicated they would issue an Interpol red notice against her.

Those held at the four detention centers are listed below.

In Jakarta

Police arrested two Papuan students, Charles Kossay and Dano Tabuni, on August 30 in connection with a rally two days earlier outside the State Palace in Jakarta for protesting racism against ethnic Papuans and unfurling the Morning Star flag.

On August 31, police arrested Ambrosius Mulait and Issay Wenda, who were protesting the arrest of Kossay and Tabuni outside the Jakarta police headquarters. Later that evening, police arrested three female activists, releasing two but detaining Ariana Lokbere, a theology student at the Indonesian Christian University.

Police also separately arrested Surya Anta Ginting, the coordinator of the Front of the Indonesian People for West Papua. Ginting, who in 2016 had publicly apologized for Indonesian repression against indigenous Papuans, is the first non-Papuan Indonesian to be charged with treason for supporting a referendum in West Papua. All of them are now detained at the Salemba and the Pondok Bambu detention centers in Jakarta.

In Balikpapan, East Kalimantan

Police arrested eight Papuan activists in Jayapura including two student leaders Alexander Gobay and Ferry Gombo, as well as six activists associated with the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), a political organization that seeks a referendum on West Papua's future. They are Buchtar Tabuni, Steven Itlay, Assa Asso, Agus Kossay, Hengki Hilapok, and Irwanus Uropmobin.

Tabuni and Itlay are former political prisoners. Human Rights Watch profiled Tabuni in 2010, when he was jailed in the Abepura prison, also for “treason.” Kossay is the chairman of the West Papua National Committee.

The eight were arrested between September 9 and September 17, and were moved to Balikpapan on October 4. The police have sought their trial in Balikpapan rather than Papua’s provincial capital, Jayapura, for “security reasons.”

In Manokwari, West Papua

Police arrested four activists who are now detained in the Manokwari police station, including Sayang Mandabayan, a former Sorong city council member. She was arrested on September 2 for bringing 1,500 small Morning Star flags through Manokwari airport. Three student activists were also arrested on September 19: Erik Aliknoe, Pende Mirin, and Yunus Aliknoe. The three students are charged with treason for making Morning Star flags.

In Sorong, West Papua

Police detained four student activists – Herman Sabo Yosep Laurensius Syufi, Manase Baho, Eteus Paulus, and Miwak Karet – at the Sorong police station for making and distributing Morning Star flags.

These prosecutions appear to reflect a fundamental shift by President Jokowi’s government regarding free expression and Papua, Human Rights Watch said. Jokowi promised in May 2015 to release political prisoners throughout Indonesia. The Ministry of Law and Human Rights, in charge of prison management in Indonesia, gradually released many of the country’s political prisoners. The most high-profile West Papuan political prisoner, Filep Karma, was released in November 2015. The authorities also freed political prisoners from the Moluccas Islands and moved eight from a remote prison island to an ordinary prison in Ambon, the Moluccas Islands capital, to be closer to their families.

By August 2017, Human Rights Watch estimated that only between 1 and 5 Papuan political prisoners remained behind bars, compared to more than 110 in May 2015.

A coalition of human rights groups and lawyers in Papua has listed 73 people arrested in Papua, West Papua, and Jakarta, including the 22 detainees. Human Rights Watch has not corroborated the information regarding the legal status of the other 51 people.

“The Indonesian government made significant progress in recent years by releasing nearly all political prisoners, yet recent arrests are threatening those fragile gains,” Pearson said. “As the December 1 anniversary approaches, Indonesian authorities should stop arresting and detaining people simply for waving flags or peacefully urging independence.”