Indonesian court convicted and sentenced seven Papuan pro-independence activists and students Wednesday to between 10 and 11 months in prison on charges of treason for organizing and participating in anti-Jakarta protests that rocked the far-eastern Papua region last year.
The sentences handed down in an Indonesian Borneo courtroom were much lighter than prison terms of five to 17 years that prosecutors had sought during the four-month trial in East Kalimantan province, where the defendants had been transferred from Papua over security concerns. The defendants were “proven to have committed treason with others,” the judges ruled in their verdicts.
Activists Buchtar Tabuni, Stevanus Itlay and Agus Kossay were found guilty of treason and sentenced to 11 months in prison. Tabuni is a leader of the pro-independence United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) while Itlay and Kossay are members of the National Committee for West Papua, an organization that seeks a referendum on self-determination for the mainly Melanesian region.
The other four – student leaders Ferry Gombo, Irwanus Uropmabin, Alexander Gobai and Hengki Hilapok – were sentenced to 10 months on similar charges. All seven have spent about nine months in custody since their arrests last year, meaning their sentences would be finished in another month or two.
The session was held in a court closed to spectators and broadcast live on the internet in keeping with Indonesia’s social distancing rules to slow the spread of COVID-19. Outside the courthouse in Balikpapan, the capital of East Kalimantan, dozens of local students staged a peaceful protest to demand the defendants be acquitted. The seven and their attorneys did not rule out challenging their convictions.
“Thank you for this sentence, your honor,” Tabuni said. “I feel I’m not guilty, so let me think through this verdict,” he said.
Tabuni and the others have seven days to appeal. Defense attorney Fathul Huda Wiyashadi said he was satisfied with the rulings.
“Because if the judges had ruled in favor of the prosecutors, we fear it would have negative repercussions for all of Indonesia,” he said about the short sentences.
Fathul previously argued that some of the defendants claimed they were under duress from police when they made statements last year. Those statements were used against them in their trials.
The move to Balikpapan, which is about 2,400 km (about 1,500 miles) from Papua, was decried by the group International Lawyers for West Papua last year over concerns it would hinder access to family and support for the defendants, according to local media. Veronica Koman, a human rights lawyer whose work focuses on abuses in Papua, called the sentencings “surprising.”
“Please do not let the relatively lenient sentences fool you, because this still reflects racism. I still think they should have been found not guilty,” she told BenarNews on Wednesday.
She said domestic and foreign support had contributed to the judges’ decision.
“I think Jakarta realized that the long sentences demanded by the prosecutors would have caused lots of anger among Papuans and reopened wounds that have not healed yet,” Koman said. “Besides, unprecedented solidarity from Indonesians plays a huge role in this. We’ve got messages of support from dozens of Indonesian student unions,” she said.
The rulings handed down in Balikpapan on Wednesday came nearly two months after a court in Central Jakarta convicted and sentenced six activists to eight to nine months in prison for treason for participating in a 2019 protest calling for a referendum of self-determination in Papua.
Dozens killed in rallies
More than 40 people were killed in August and September 2019 after anti-government protests turned violent in Papua and West Papua provinces, which make up the Indonesian half of New Guinea island.
The unrest was sparked by perceived heavy-handed and racist treatment of Papuan students by security personnel on Java Island. It prompted the government to send police and military troops to the Papua region and block the internet for three weeks.
Papuan activists and their supporters, inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, recently went on social media using the hashtag “PapuanLivesMatter” to denounce what they see as racist treatment across Indonesia of Papuans.
Protests broke out across the United States sparked by a video that showed a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, George Floyd, who said he could not breathe and later died, as other officers stood nearby. On Wednesday, Amnesty International urged the Indonesian government to release the seven who were convicted in Balikpapan.
“We deeply regret the court’s decision. Although the sentences are much lighter than those demanded by the public prosecutors, we believe the prisoners of conscience should not have been arrested, jailed and prosecuted,” AI Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid said in a statement.
The Papua region was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-administered ballot known as the Act of Free Choice. Many Papuans and rights groups said the vote was a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people. The provinces of Papua and West Papua make up one-fifth of Indonesia’s land mass but only 5.9 million of Indonesia’s 270 million people live there.