A high-profile Papuan separatist leader was released from prison Thursday after more than a decade behind bars, a fresh sign that Indonesia may be easing its tight grip on the restive eastern region.
Filep Karma, the most prominent of Papua’s political prisoners and convicted of raising a pro-independence flag, walked free from jail to an emotional welcome by hundreds of cheering supporters.
His release had been held up for months after he refused to admit guilt in line with demands from the government. In the end, authorities agreed to grant him a sentence remission for good behaviour, according to Human Rights Watch.
“Thank you Lord, he is in very good health and he was welcomed very well by Papuans, this is what Papuans want,” his spokeswoman Ruth Ogetay said after Karma was freed from prison on the outskirts of Jayapura, the capital of Papua province.
“Hundreds of people were here to welcome him, everybody is so happy he has been released.”
The move came after Indonesian President Joko Widodo pledged to improve livelihoods in the poor region, where security forces have long faced accusations of rights abuses against the local population in the name of anti-rebel operations.
A low-level insurgency has simmered for decades in Papua, where poorly armed fighters are battling against rule from Jakarta, and the region has a heavy military and police presence.
Dozens of separatists are in jail for committing treason for acts such as raising the pro-independence “Morning Star” flag and taking part in anti-government protests.
Karma, 56, was the most high-profile of the separatist detainees. He was found guilty of treason and jailed in 2004 after raising the banned flag at a rally.
The United Nations had condemned his detention as “arbitrary”, while Amnesty International had designated him a prisoner of conscience.
Karma’s release came after five political prisoners were freed in May at a ceremony attended by Widodo.
The president also pledged to end decades-old reporting restrictions for foreigners in Papua, although rights groups say the government continues to block access.
There are still regular flare-ups of violence in Papua, which consists of two provinces, Papua and West Papua. Jakarta took control of the region, which forms half of the island of New Guinea, in 1963 from former colonial power the Netherlands.