No Political Prisoners? The suppression of political protest in West Papua

29 Apr 2013

*Herman and his friends begin another day in Wamena prison, in West Papua’s central highlands. They do not know whether they will eat today, and long for news of their families, who live up in the mountains, some hours away by truck.

Arrested on 20 November 2010 in Yalengga, Jayawijaya district, the men were ordinary farmers on their way to a funeral. They were carrying the banned Morning Star flag1 – a symbol of Papuan independence – out of respect for the political beliefs of the deceased. Arrested and tortured by the military, the men were found guilty of treason under Article 106 of the Indonesian Criminal Code, and are now serving eightyear prison sentences. With no money to pay legal fees or travel costs for lawyers from the provincial capital, the opportunity to appeal the decision has been lost. Their liberty now rests in the hands of the Indonesian President, who can grant clemency if he wishes.

But the Indonesian government says that these men do not exist.

West Papua is a highly militarised region of Indonesia in which political activity is criminalised in order to suppress the ongoing struggle for independence. The security approach deployed by the state results in the continued arrest and conviction of Papuan political activists, who are commonly punished with heavy sentences. The government of Indonesia has repeatedly denied the existence of these political prisoners, stating that ‘there are no political prisoners in West Papua.’ Meanwhile, political arrests and convictions continue.

A diverse group, West Papua’s political prisoners comprise men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds, all with different stories. Some have campaigned actively for independence and been jailed for acts of peaceful political expression. Some stand accused of involvement in politically-motivated acts of violence against property or the state. Others are known as political leaders or were simply ordinary people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Despite their differences they share many common experiences, including arbitrary arrest, beatings, torture, abuse, isolation and neglect. Each political prisoner represents a wider circle of those affected, including their families, those who defend their rights, and the wider indigenous community. West Papua’s political prisoners are symbolic of both the ongoing political struggle and the Indonesian government’s reluctance to seek a political solution.

As long as the security approach prevails, free expression will continue to be criminalised. This represents a major barrier for attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully, as dialogue is impossible if the expression of opinions or aspirations results in arrest. The Papuan political prisoner issue can therefore be seen as a barometer for Indonesia’s commitment to end the security approach and fulfil the promise of democracy.

"They raise the flag, demonstrate and protest. If we analyse this, we can see that it’s because there’s a problem." Markus Haluk, human rights activist

This report highlights issues affecting the right to free expression and assembly in West Papua. It offers analysis of developments in government policy and practice, and presents experiences of current and former political prisoners, as well as those affected by their detention. The report also presents data on political arrests and political prisoners during 2012, providing a concrete baseline against which to measure democratic space in West Papua. The concluding recommendations are intended to support relevant stakeholders in taking action to resolve the problem.

This report is based on research and interviews carried out by TAPOL and data from Papuans Behind Bars, a civil society collaboration initiated by members of the Civil Society Coalition for the Upholding of Law and Human Rights in Papua.2 Data on political arrests was collected from reports submitted by lawyers and NGOs, police investigation reports, government documents, information received from individual activists, and online media in both English and Indonesian, from local, national and international media outlets. Information was cross-checked with contacts in the relevant areas. TAPOL conducted 14 interviews with former political prisoners, family members and human rights defenders between January 2012 and February 2013.

Click here to download the full report