Papuan students take part in a rally in Surabaya, East Java, on June 16, 2020 demanding the Indonesian government to free seven Papuan protesters, charged with treason for their involvement in anti-racism protests in 2019, ahead of their verdicts on June 17. Photo: AFP/Juni Kriswanto

JAKARTA – Amid the fallout from the George Floyd murder re-awakening awareness of racial discrimination around the globe, an Indonesian court has sentenced seven Papuans to surprisingly light jail terms on treason charges for allegedly fomenting anti-racist riots which rocked Papua last year.

Worried about triggering a further outbreak of violence in the country’s rebellious easternmost province, justice officials used “security reasons” to justify moving the trial 3,400 kilometers away to the East Kalimantan city of Balikpapan.

There, on June 17, Buchtar Tabuni, 41, leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, received what Human Rights Watch (HRW) representative Andreas Harsono called a “face-saving” 11 months’ imprisonment, far less than the 17 years demanded by prosecutors.

The court found that Tabuni was gardening at the time and not implicated in the violence, which broke out across Papua and West Papua provinces after militants and soldiers attacked Papuan students in the East Java port city of Surabaya on August 17, Indonesia’s independence day.

Video footage showed the mob banging on the gate of the student dormitory shouting “monkeys” and “pork eaters,” while police fired teargas into the building and later arrested dozens of the students for allegedly defiling Indonesian’s national flag.

Tabuni, a veteran separatist campaigner, actually spoke out publicly against the disturbances, asserting that the racism issue was only a distraction from the main objective of winning independence for the vast resource-rich territory.

Papuan students take part in a rally in Surabaya, East Java, on June 16, 2020 demanding the Indonesian government to free seven Papuan protesters charged with treason for their involvement in anti-racism protests in 2019. Photo: AFP/Juni Kriswanto

Two members of the pro-independence National Committee of West Papua, Agus Kossay and Stevanus Itlay, were each jailed for 10 months, again far less than the 15 years demanded by the prosecution. Like Tabuni, neither were directly implicated in the violence.

Four student leaders received 10-month sentences on the same treason charges for their active involvement in the protests which claimed 30 lives and caused extensive damage in Jayapura and Manokwari, the two province capitals, and also in Wamena and Sarong.

“In essence, they were all sentenced to time served,” says one legal analyst. “The court would rather do that than give them a free pass. Only the government sees treason in these cases, no-one else does because they have better information.”

Opinion was divided among activists on whether the Ford furor in the US had any influence on the verdicts, but sentence inconsistencies are common in the Indonesian judicial system which is still struggling with reform 20 years after the birth of democracy.

This week, prosecutors demanded a 16-year sentence for the militant who stabbed former chief security minister Wiranto last October, but only a year-long term for the two policemen charged with throwing acid in the face of corruption investigator Novel Baswedan in October 2017.

Both are being defended by a police lawyer, an irony not lost on legal experts. Under Article 13 of the 2003 Police Law members of the force are only entitled to legal representation if the alleged offense was committed during the course of their assigned duties.

Rumors persist about why it took police so long to investigate the case and who was behind it given the fact that Baswedan, a former police officer himself, had a long-standing feud with corrupt senior police officers.

An armed Indonesian policeman stands guard near a burning building after hundreds of demonstrators marched near Papua’s biggest city Jayapura on August 29, 2019. Photo: AFP/Indra Thamrin Hatta

Balikpapan was chosen for the Papua trials because there are no Papuan students studying there. The 7,000 young Papuans in Jogjakarta are the largest number studying outside Papua, with another 4,000 each in Makassar, South Sulawesi, and Monado, capital of Christian-majority North Sulawesi.

Thousands more go to school in Surabaya and Jakarta, where they are often subjected to racial discrimination. Even Indonesian leaders have acknowledged that a lack of respect for ethnic Melanesians is a major barrier to their integration.

Tabuni was jailed for three years for organizing a peaceful independence gathering in Jayapura in late 2008, months after a relative was killed during a United Nations Indigenous People’s Day rally in Wamena, the Central Highlands capital.

“Indonesian authorities should recognize that given the global attention to the BlackLivesMatter movement, sending peaceful activists to prison will bring more international attention to human rights concerns in Papua,” lawyer Brad Adams, HRW’s executive director for Asia, said in a statement.

Five Papuan men and one woman were convicted and sentenced to nine months imprisonment in Jakarta on April 24 for taking part in protests outside Jakarta’s state palace last August to protest the Surabaya incident.

In January 2018, the Constitutional Court turned down a judicial review seeking to annul the Criminal Code’s six treason articles, but it found they were often disproportionately applied against activists raising the Morning Star flag, which has come to symbolize Papua’s independence struggle.

A Papuan student with the West Papua Morning Star flag painted on her face during a rally in Jakarta, August 28, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Andrew Gal

About 100 political prisoners were released during President Joko Widodo’s first term, mostly by reducing their prison terms. But Human Rights Watch lists a total of 46 Papuans and one foreigner who have been charged with or convicted of treason since mid-2018

Another four Moluccan prisoners are still serving 17-year sentences for staging a 2007 dance in support of the Republic of South Muluku (RMS), which like Papua sought to break away from newly-independent Indonesia in 1950.

Sixty-four other dancers received lesser sentences, but the draconian punishments have continued. In June last year, 80-year-old Izaak Siahaja was given five and a half years’ imprisonment for displaying an RMS flag in the privacy of his home.

The government’s long-term strategy towards Papua remains as unclear as ever after newly-appointed chief security minister Mahfud MD disbanded a Papua working group established by his predecessor, former armed forces chief Wiranto.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto has shown little interest in domestic affairs so far, focusing instead on international issues and on what for now is a pandemic-defunded modernization program, which includes the purchase of frontline jet fighters.

Analysts say the government is willing to wait out the Papuan separatist movement, mindful of the fact that the demographics are working for it with non-Papuans now representing the majority of the population in most lowland towns across West Papua and Papua.

Fighters with the West Papua National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM) in Indonesia’s Papua province. Photo: Twitter

While there is little to be gained from assuming a more aggressive security approach, the one exception is in the Central Highlands, home to most indigenous Papuans, where gunmen slaughtered 19 workers on the Trans-Papua Highway in December 2018.

An unprecedented March 30 assault on mining giant Freeport Indonesia’s offices in Timika on the south coast, and frequent pin-prick attacks around the company’s Grasberg copper and gold mine, ensure there will be little change in troop strength there either.

Both are important to Papua’s overall economic development, but the highway, cutting across the heart of the territory’s mountainous spine, will almost certainly bring outsiders into conflict with local tribesmen in ways the government might not yet envisage.