Indonesia: Free Imprisoned Papua Activists

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A Papuan activist with his face painted with the colors of the separatist Morning Star flag shouts slogans during a rally near the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 22, 2019.
© 2019 AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

(Jakarta) – Indonesian authorities should immediately drop politically motivated treason charges and release Papuans detained for the peaceful exercise of their rights in the Papua and West Papua provinces, Human Rights Watch said today.

On August 17, 2019, a racist mob comprised of security forces and members of militant groups attacked students at a West Papuan university dormitory in the East Java city of Surabaya. Three years later, Indonesian authorities continue to subject Indigenous Papuans to racial discrimination and intimidation, arbitrary arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings, and mass forced displacement.

“Indonesian security forces for decades have routinely subjected Indigenous Papuans to wrongful arrests and violence, and yet were never brought to justice for these rights violations,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Indonesian government should stop harassing and arresting peaceful Papuan protesters, and immediately release activists prosecuted for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”

Video footage of the attack three years ago shows officers shouting racist insults at the West Papuan students while forcing their way into the dormitory and firing teargas. Police arrested 43 Indigenous Papuan students for allegedly failing to raise the Indonesian flag outside the dorm to celebrate Indonesian Independence Day. The authorities released the students later that day. But for nearly a month, the students had to sleep outside their dormitory due to the lingering toxic smell of teargas.

Widespread protests ensued in at least 30 cities across Indonesia after the video footage spread online and news of the event was reported. Some protests turned violent, and both Indonesian settlers and Indigenous Papuans were killed in such places as Wamena and Jayapura. Indonesian authorities responded to the protests in the following months by arresting at least 22 peaceful protesters on treason charges.

The human rights situation in Papua and West Papua has continued to deteriorate amid a climate of rising fighting between the Papuan pro-independence insurgents and the Indonesian security forces.

Almost two years after being arrested, Victor Yeimo, 39, a spokesperson for the West Papuan National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, KNPB), remains in police detention. Police arrested him on May 9, 2021, in Jayapura and charged him with treason for calling for a referendum on independence during the anti-racism protests that followed the Surabaya attack. After Yeimo’s arrest, the media reported that up to 130 protesters were arrested in the West Papuan capital of Manokwari.

While in prison, Yeimo was denied access to vital medical care, and as a result, by August 2021, his health had deteriorated to life-threatening levels. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis after his arrest, and has recently been in the hospital receiving treatment for that disease.

In September 2021, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, publicly expressed her concerns to the Indonesian authorities regarding the charges against Yeimo and the neglect of his medical needs.

In a June 26, 2020 letter to the Indonesian government, a group of UN special rapporteurs raised their concerns about the harassment, intimidation, and criminalization of human rights defenders in Papua. They also raised the alleged acts of intimidation against Wensislaus Fatubun, a communications adviser to the official Papuan People’s Assembly. Indonesian police arrested Fatubun on November 17, 2020, along with 84 others, ahead of a series of meetings organized by the Papuan People’s Assembly in Merauke. He was released the following day.

Successive Indonesian governments, including current President Joko Widodo’s administration, have sought to quash the Papuan independence movement by increasing Indonesian troops and police in the region. The authorities regularly violate Papuans’ rights to freedom of expression and association, including by making it a criminal offense to raise the Papuan “Morning Star” flag, which violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Indonesia is a party.

On August 15, a prosecutor sought a one-year sentence for seven Papuan students who have been detained since December 1, 2021, for raising the Morning Star flag. They are Melvin Yobe, 29; Melvin Fernando Waine, 25; Devio Tekege, 23; Yosep Ernesto Matuan, 19; Maksimus Simon Petrus You, 18; Lukas Kitok Uropmabin, 21; and Ambrosius Fransiskus Elopere, 21.

On March 1, UN experts again expressed concerns, calling for an independent investigation into reports that Indonesian security forces had abused Indigenous Papuans, and for the Indonesian authorities to allow unrestricted humanitarian access to the region.

In June, the authorities arrested 44 protesters who had been peacefully protesting the Indonesian authorities’ contentious plans to create three new provinces in Papua. Many activists viewed this as a government effort to “divide and conquer” the Indigenous Papuan identity and movement.

Rather than seeking to reduce tensions and respond to the concerns of Indigenous people in Papua, the Indonesian government has sought to further divide the region by splitting Papua province into four separate provinces. Activists raised concerns that this plan will lead to the increased militarization of Papua while enabling the Indonesian government to gain greater control over the resource-rich region.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on Papuan claims to self-determination, but supports everyone’s right, including independence supporters, to express their political views peacefully without fear of arrest or other forms of reprisal.

“On the third anniversary of the abhorrent 2019 attacks, the Indonesian government should recognize that arresting and imprisoning peaceful Papuan activists perpetuates problems and unrest,” Robertson said. “Indonesian police and military operations should be carried out lawfully and in a manner that respects and upholds the right to freedom of expression and association for Indigenous populations.”

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