(Jakarta) – Indonesian authorities should drop all charges and release seven Papuan activists and students on trial for their involvement in antiracism protests in Jayapura, Papua, in August 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. During the week of June 14, 2020, judges in Balikpapan, Kalimantan, will issue verdicts in three separate trials for “treason” against them.
The #BlackLivesMatter protests in the United States in recent years have reverberated in Indonesia as Melanesian people, including ethnic Papuans and Moluccans, face racial discrimination from Indonesian authorities. Papuan and Moluccan opposition to Indonesian rule and oppressive Indonesian military and police actions has often been met with further abuses.
“Indonesia had its own version of Black Lives Matter protests last year, and police outrageously charged and detained those seen as organizing the protests,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Prosecutors should release these Papuan activists, who have suffered enough by being jailed for months far from home for peaceful acts of free expression.”
For decades, Indonesia’s government has discriminated against the dark-skinned Indigenous people of Melanesian origin in the resource-rich and isolated provinces of Papua and West Papua, which Indonesia took over in 1969.
In August 2019, Papuans took part in protests across at least 30 cities in Indonesia in response to a racist attack by Indonesian militants and army officers on a West Papuan student dorm in Surabaya on August 17. Videos showed some Indonesian soldiers repeatedly banging on the dormitory’s gate while shouting words such as “monkeys” and “pork eaters” (eating pork is an insult in this predominantly Muslim country but ethnic Papuans, predominantly Christians, eat pork with various recipes including the Melanesian-styled stone burning method). Police shot teargas into the dormitory and arrested dozens of Papuan students.
Videos of the attack circulated widely and triggered protests. There was also some looting and arson attacks in Jayapura, Manokwari, Sorong, and Wamena. Those riots prompted the police to arrest, not those committing violence, but at least 43 Papuan protest leaders and activists.
Police arrested the seven defendants in Jayapura, Papua, in September. In October, the authorities transferred them more than 3,000 kilometers away to be tried in Balikpapan for “security reasons.” Prosecutors are seeking between 5 and 17 years in prison for each of the defendants.
The defendants are: Buchtar Tabuni, a leader of the pro-Papuan independence group United Liberation Movement for West Papua (prosecutors are seeking a 17-year prison term); Agus Kossay and Stevanus Itlay from the National Committee of West Papua (Komite Nasional Papua Barat) (15 years); Ferry Gombo, Cenderawasih University student union head, and Alexander Gobai, Jayapura University of Science and Technology (USTJ) student union head (10 years); and Irwanus Uropmabin and Hengki Hilapok, USTJ students (5 years), who were helping Gobai to rent a truck and sound system for the protest.
Many Indonesians have criticized the Attorney General’s Office for prosecuting the Balikpapan Seven. More than 150 Papuan politicians, civic leaders, and religious clerics, including members of parliament and the senate, have signed a petition asking President Joko Widodo to drop the charges against them. Papuan Catholic priests from the six regions in Papua and West Papua also issued a joint statement, calling the arrests and trial a “travesty of justice.” Many Indonesian human rights groups and student unions across the country also criticized the government. Some student bodies organized webinars over the Balikpapan trial and racism against ethnic Papuans.
Human Rights Watch has been documenting cases of political prisoners in Indonesia, including Papua, since the 1980s. Kombo is the president of the student union in Cendrawasih University, Papua’s oldest and largest public university. Gobai is the president of the student union at Papua’s most prestigious engineering school.
Human Rights Watch profiled Tabuni in 2010 when he was imprisoned in Jayapura for “treason” for three years, from 2008 to 2011. The police arrested Tabuni two days after he helped organize a peaceful independence gathering on December 1, 2008. He became politically active when a relative was killed while taking part in a peaceful rally celebrating United Nations Indigenous People’s Day on August 9, 2008, in Wamena.
“Indonesian police have created a revolving door by arresting Papuan activists like Buchtar Tabuni for peaceful protests that needs to stop,” Adams said. “Indonesian authorities should recognize that given the global attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, sending peaceful activists to prison will only bring more international attention to human rights concerns in Papua.”