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Indonesia pressed to free jailed independence activists

A leading rights group has urged Indonesia’s government to release at least 70 Papuan and Moluccan activists imprisoned for peacefully voicing their political views.

Citing recent cases, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said from April 25 to 27, Indonesian police in Maluku arrested 23 activists, including at least two children.

In a statement, HRW said the 23 had allegedly participated in flag-raising ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the declaration of independence of the Republic of South Moluccas (Republik Maluku Selatan, RMS) in 1950. The rights group said that police have indicated that seven of the activists will be charged with treason under article 106 of the criminal code, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

In another case, three activists walked openly into the Moluccan police headquarters in Ambon, the capital of Maluku province, carrying the RMS flag while shouting “Mena muria,” (“You go, I follow”) a popular salute among Moluccan people on April 25, HRW said.

Police arrested the three men — Johanes Pattiasina, Simon Viktor Taihutu, and Abner Litamahuputty — plus four other activists who unfurled the flags in some other towns.

On the day before, a court in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, convicted six Papuan activists for treason and sentenced them to between eight and nine months in prison. The five men and one woman were involved in a rally on Aug. 28, 2019, outside the State Palace in Jakarta, during which they unfurled the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence. The rally, involving more than 500 people, was held to protest racist attacks by the police against Papuan students in Surabaya, Java Island, on Aug. 17.

“Detaining and prosecuting Papuan and Moluccan activists for peacefully voicing their political views backtracks on the government’s commitments to free expression,” said Andreas Harsono, senior HRW Indonesia researcher. “These activists should never have been imprisoned, and detaining them in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic could be deadly,” he said.

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HRW, along with Amnesty International, Kontras, and other human rights groups, have for more than a decade pressed the Indonesian government to release political prisoners.

In May 2015, Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo pardoned and released five Papuan prisoners from Abepura prison, Jayapura. He publicly promised to release all Moluccan and Papuan prisoners, and said he wanted “to stop the stigma of conflict in Papua and to create a sense of peace.” His administration gradually released nearly 100 political prisoners, mostly by reducing sentences.

“President Jokowi succeeded in releasing many political prisoners in his first five years in office,” Harsono said. “Jokowi’s second term should not produce as many political prisoners as his predecessor. These cases are a bitter betrayal of his government’s prior policy and contrary to a top court ruling.”

In January 2018, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court rejected a judicial review to annul the criminal code’s six treason articles, including article 106, but found that those articles were often disproportionally applied against political activists raising the Morning Star flag in Papua and the RMS flag in the Moluccas Islands.

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