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Indonesia: Drop Charges, Release Peaceful Papuan Activist

Ensure Counterinsurgency Operations Are Not Abusive

Supporters of West Papua shout slogans during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia on December 1, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

(Jakarta) – Indonesian authorities should drop politically motivated treason charges and unconditionally release an activist detained for peacefully advocating Papuan independence, Human Rights Watch said today. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should publicly direct security forces involved in counterinsurgency operations in Papua to act in accordance with international law or be held to account.

On May 9, 2021, a special police unit, Satgas Nemangkawi, arrested Victor Yeimo, a spokesman for the West Papua National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, KNPB) in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province. Police charged him with treason for a 2019 statement, made during anti-racism protests and ensuing riots in Papua and West Papua, calling for a referendum on independence. Papua’s police chief, Mathius Fakhiri, said that the police are still “digging up” cases against Yeimo: “Let him get old in prison.”

“Indonesian police should investigate the deadly violence and arson attacks in Papua in 2019 but not use that as a pretext to crack down on peaceful activists,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “An independent investigation is still needed into the role of the security forces, and the authorities need to prosecute those responsible for wrongdoing.”

For decades, successive Indonesian governments have discriminated against the Indigenous people of Melanesian origin in the resource-rich and isolated provinces of Papua and West Papua, Human Rights Watch said.

Yeimo, 38, is a prominent activist who helped set up the KNPB after the fatal shooting of Opinus Tabuni, a Papuan celebrating International Indigenous People’s Day on August 9, 2008. No one was ever arrested for his killing.

Yeimo and others were arrested in 2008 and 2009 for advocating a United Nations-administered independence referendum in Papua and West Papua provinces. On his Facebook page, Yeimo has repeatedly written about racism against Papuans and called for negotiations between the West Papuan independence movement and Indonesia’s government. He has spoken at conferences in Indonesia and internationally about Papua’s environmental and human rights problems.

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 soldiers on a West Papuan student dorm in Surabaya. Videos showed some Indonesian soldiers repeatedly banging on the dormitory’s gate while shouting words such as “monkeys.” Police shot teargas into the dormitory and arrested dozens of Papuan students. Videos of the attack circulated widely and triggered widespread protests, including looting and arson attacks in Jayapura, Manokwari, Sorong, and Wamena.  

At least 43 Papuan protest leaders and KNPB activists were charged with treason and sentenced despite the fact that they were not involved in violence. The activists included Surya Anta Ginting, the coordinator of the Front of the Indonesian People for West Papua, who was convicted along with five other Papuan activists, in April 2020. They were sentenced to between eight and nine months in prison.

In Balikpapan, seven KNPB activists and Papuan student leaders were sentenced to between 10 and 11 months for treason in June 2020. These included Buchtar Tabuni, another KNPB founder, and Agus Kossay, the KNPB chairman, who were jailed for their pro-independence speeches. The police then also put Yeimo, who had given interviews to international media, on their “wanted” list, though they took no further action at the time.

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.

Yeimo’s May 9 arrest came as Indonesian military operations in Papua intensified in response to the April 25 killing in an ambush of I Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha Karya, a Special Forces (Kopassus) brigadier general, in the Central Highlands. Nugraha is the first general to be killed in five decades of low intensity conflict in Papua. Yeimo called the death of General Nugraha a “sacrifice” caused by the reluctance of the Indonesian government and parliament to find a political solution in Papua.

President Jokowi responded to the killing by ordering the army and police to hunt down and arrest every member of the group responsible for the general’s death. The Jokowi administration later declared an unnamed “armed criminal group” a terrorist organization, apparently referring to the West Papua National Liberation Army.

The national police have dispatched an additional 12 companies (about 1,200 officers) from Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and the Moluccas, while the military has sent 400 troops from the 315/Garuda Battalion from Bogor, south of Jakarta. Human rights groups in Indonesia have expressed concerns that the government’s labeling the armed group “terrorist” could encourage serious abuses by the security forces in Papua. 

“Papuan opposition to Indonesian rule and military and police oppression has often been met with further abuses,” Adams said. “The Indonesian authorities should ensure that all security force operations in Papua are carried out in accordance with the law and that peaceful activists and other civilians are not targeted.”

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