Papuan prisoner protest highlights Indonesia’s secret shame

2 Apr 2014

Dozens of protestors today demanded the immediate release of political prisoners in West Papua at a peaceful rally outside Indonesia’s London Embassy organised by TAPOL, Survival International and Amnesty International UK. Similar rallies were held in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.

In West Papua at around 10:00 Eastern Indonesia time today, police fired shots at peaceful demonstrators demanding the release of prisoners, reportedly called the indigenous demonstrators ‘monkeys’ and made two arrests. Early reports indicate that the two detainees have been tortured, and they are being denied access to their lawyers.

In London at 12 noon, protestors representing each of the 76 Papuan political prisoners currently behind bars were symbolically handcuffed and taped across the mouth to highlight the silencing of free speech in Papua.

Papuan political prisoner Dominikus Surabut today sent a message to 2 April protestors across the globe from his cell in Abepura prison, saying:

Freedom and democracy cannot be killed or jailed. Its spirit is absolute. No person or State can defeat it. To all advocates of human rights and democracy: we cannot remain silent. We must join hands and spirits together to achieve democratic freedoms.”

Surabut was arrested on 19 October 2011 and is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for his participation in a peaceful political gathering.

In a letter to the Indonesian Ambassador delivered today, rally organiser TAPOL said that there were 537 political arrests in West Papua in 2013, more than double the number of arrests in 2012. Reported cases of torture and ill-treatment in detention tripled while the number of cases involving denial of access to lawyers or unfair trials doubled.

The letter pointed out that the revelation about the huge increase in arrests ‘is particularly disturbing in the run-up to the Indonesian national elections next week. The lack of democratic space in Papua means that the elections are largely irrelevant as far as many Papuans are concerned.’

West Papua, which has been ruled by Indonesia since 1963, suffers from widespread human rights abuses at the hands of the Indonesian security forces. Indigenous Papuans are routinely arrested and imprisoned, some for as long as 15 years, for peaceful activities such as raising the Papuan Morning Star flag or attending demonstrations and public events to express their political aspirations. They continue to be charged with treason (makar) and conspiracy under Articles 106 and 110 of the Indonesian criminal code.

According to updates published by the Papuan Behind Bars monitoring collective, political prisoners in West Papua are frequently tortured and forced to confess. Most are beaten and they are often subject to cruel and degrading treatment such as having their heads shaved, being forced to beat one another, and being denied food and medical treatment.

Severe restrictions on international organizations and foreign media working in West Papua mean that many abuses take place in secret and independent reporting is almost impossible. This is a serious concern in a territory that is reported to host one of the highest concentrations of security forces in the world.

“If Indonesia has nothing to hide in West Papua, then why aren’t journalists and international organisations allowed in?” said Paul Barber, TAPOL’s Coordinator. “The 76 political prisoners in Papua can no longer be hidden from the world.”

On 9 April Indonesians will go to the polls in the national legislative election, and on 9 July they will vote again, this time in the presidential elections. Some of the leading presidential candidates such as Prabowo Subianto, Wiranto and Aburizal Bakrie stand accused of serious human rights violations. As election fever grips the country, human rights groups both inside and outside the country are calling on candidates to pledge their commitments to human rights and state their vision for a peaceful Papua.

International organizations and UN mechanisms are increasingly challenging the unacceptable restrictions on freedom of expression in West Papua. In November 2012 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion that the detention of Filep Karma, currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for raising the Papuan Morning Star flag, is in violation of international law.

In May 2012 during the Universal Periodic Review of Indonesia at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Government of Indonesia accepted recommendations to issue an invitation to the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, Mr Frank La Rue. However, while the visit was scheduled to take place in early 2013, the visit was unilaterally cancelled by Indonesia. In May 2013 UN High Commission for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, issued a statement critical of the ongoing suppression of freedom of expression in West Papua.

TAPOL is calling upon Indonesia to stop charging Papuan political activists with criminal offences, order the unconditional release of current political prisoners, comply with international standards concerning the treatment of prisoners, and allow free access to Papua for international journalists, humanitarian and human rights organisations.



According to an update published by Papuans Behind Bars, there were at least 76 political prisoners in Papuan jails at the end of February.

Papuans Behind Bars is a collective project initiated by Papuan civil society groups working together as the Civil Society Coalition to Uphold Law and Human Rights in Papua. It is a grassroots initiative and represents a broad collaboration between lawyers, human rights groups, adat groups, activists, journalists and individuals in West Papua, as well as Jakarta-based NGOs and international solidarity groups.

Political arrests are defined by Papuans Behind Bars as “arrests which appear to be politically motivated, and can include arrests which happen in political contexts such as demonstrations or places used by politically active organisations and people; arrests of politically active people or their relatives; arrests of people because of their alleged political affiliations; arrests for political activities such as raising a flag or engaging in civil resistance activities, mass arrests and politically-motivated arrests under manipulated criminal charges.”