Indonesian authorities detained and charged eight West Papuan students with treason on Thursday for raising the banned Morning Star flag used by supporters of independence for the restive province, police said.
On Wednesday scores of people had gathered at a stadium in West Papua’s capital Jayapura to celebrate the anniversary of the region’s declaration of independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1961, before Indonesia took control two years later.
Papua police spokesman Ahmad Musthofa Kamal said the eight students were charged with organising and attending an outlawed event as well as producing materials promoting Papuan independence.
“They showed banners, sang a song and shouted ‘Papuan independence’ during the march,” Kamal told AFP.
If found guilty of treason, the students could face life in prison.
Michael Hilman, a lawyer for the group, confirmed the arrests and said other Papuan students protesting on Wednesday in Bali and Ambon city were also harassed by police but no further arrests were made.
Rights groups say Jakarta is increasingly turning to treason accusations to stifle dissent, with more than 50 Papuan activists facing the charge in recent years.
Among them are other activists accused of displaying Papua’s independence flag, which is banned in the world’s third-largest democracy.
The province shares a border with independent Papua New Guinea on the island of New Guinea, just north of Australia.
A former Dutch colony, mineral-rich Papua declared independence in 1961, but neighboring Indonesia took control two years later promising an independence referendum.
The subsequent vote in favor of staying part of Indonesia, approved by the UN at the time, was widely considered a sham.
Papua’s Melanesian population, predominantly Christian, share few cultural connections with the rest of Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country.