Jayapura Five walk free - but what lies ahead?

21 Jul 2014
Ap Inyerop

Today five men were released from Abepura prison in Papua, after each spending two years and nine months in detention. Imprisoned for a peaceful political event which declared Papua’s ‘independence’ from Indonesia, authorities and the Indonesian justice system have branded the men as treacherous criminals. International human rights groups such as Amnesty International instead label the men as prisoners of conscience, imprisoned for their political and ideological beliefs. Regardless of how their status is viewed, today’s release begs the question – what exactly is achieved by imprisoning those who commit ‘crimes against the state’?

Forkorus Yaboisembut, Edison Waromi, Dominikus Surabut, August Kraar and Selpius Bobii were arrested on 19 and 20 October 2011 for their roles in organising and speaking at the Third Papuan People’s Congress. The men were convicted of treason under Articles 106, 110 and 160 of the Indonesian Criminal Code and each sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment. Released a few months early due to government remissions, the men will today be reflecting on their time behind bars and the future which lies before them. Let us join them for a few moments in considering the road ahead. 

People are imprisoned in order to deter them and their contemporaries from repeating a crime, to protect society or the state from crime, and to punish wrongdoing. Activists and rights groups agree that peaceful political activity should not be considered a crime, and they are supported by numerous national and international laws and conventions. But quite apart from this, when considering the history of those imprisoned under treason and similar charges in Papua, it is difficult to see how any of the normal functions of imprisonment are being fulfilled.

Let’s first take deterrence. Those who learn the hard way that peaceful political activity is not allowed in Papua respond in different ways. Some simply continue with their mission, regardless of the consequences. Papua’s most famous political prisoner, Filep Karma, is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for raising the Morning Star flag – but this is by no means his first brush with the law for such activities. Likewise, Edison Waromi today ends his fourth period of incarceration for political activities. He was first sentenced in 1989. Other well-known political activists such as Buchtar Tabuni and Yusak Pakage have also been imprisoned repeatedly, yet they remain as determined as ever to continue their political activities.

Some choose to leave Indonesia for places like Papua New Guinea, Australia, the Netherlands and the UK, where they are free to peacefully pursue their political objectives without fear of direct retribution. Far from being deterred from such activities, individuals such as former political prisoner Benny Wenda continue their work with renewed fervour. Meanwhile, Indonesian authorities expend considerable resources on trying to combat the ensuing bad press.

Still others, statistically a small minority, see violence as the only remaining pathway to communicate their grievances, fuelling what is now one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. So rather than deterring actions seen as problematic by authorities, incarceration tends to push dissidents to become ever more active, and in some cases to take up arms.

In terms of protecting society, most treason cases hinge not on the danger to their own community but a perceived threat to the interests of the state. Unfortunately, the incarceration of peaceful political leaders appears to be wholly unsuccessful in protecting state interests, and is often counter-productive. Take the case of the ‘Jayapura Five.’ Since their arrest, all five men have remained highly politically active from their base in Abepura prison. They have published articles, given interviews, made press releases, and communicated instructions their supporters. Dominikus Surabut won the international Hellman/Hammett Award for his writing and documentary film-making work, which he accepted in absentia. Since the arrest of these men in late 2011, the issue of Papua’s political status has received increased international attention, and Papuan lobbying at the Pacific level is at an all-time high. Indonesia’s diplomatic machinery has been working overtime, and this has been very expensive. The imprisonment of these men has only served to legitimise their struggle, much as in the case of Xanana Gusmao, the Timorese independence leader who was captured in 1992 and imprisoned for seven years in Cipinang prison in Jakarta.

So finally, we come to imprisonment as punishment. As we have seen, incarceration rarely acts as a deterrent to Papua’s political activists, nor does it change their political and ideological beliefs – a highly questionable goal in itself. Like many prisons across Indonesia, the conditions in Papuan prisons are appalling. But despite the certain beatings, torture, sickness, isolation and a lifetime of reduced economic prospects, Papuan activists are willing to risk such punishment, over and over again. If punishment consistently fails to act as a deterrent then it is purely punitive, a vengeful act which is making matters worse, not better.

Today the ‘Jayapura Five’ walk free. What lies ahead of them? Will they continue their activities only to be imprisoned again? Will they flee to Australia or the Netherlands to continue their campaign? Will they recede into the shadows, chagrined by their experiences? Or is Indonesia ready for something new? This October will bring the third anniversary of the event which landed the five men in jail, as well as the swearing in of Indonesia’s new President. All eyes are looking ahead. It is a time of hope. The courage to take the road less travelled, by both sides, will be a true test of the mettle of Indonesia’s democracy.

Ap Inyerop

Ap Inyerop is a contributor to Papuans Behind Bars, an online resource about Papuan political prisoners www.papuansbehindbars.org