Indonesian authorities criminalise activists, violently suppress protests around Papua

Indonesian authorities criminalise activists, violently suppress protests around Papua
Police firing tear gas at protesters in Papua, 10 May 2022 (Photo: Twitter/@westpapuamedia)

The state of civic space in Indonesia remains ’obstructed’. Despite its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as Indonesian law to respect and protect civic freedoms, violations continue to be documented.

In the last few months, human rights defenders have been arrested, criminalised and threatened, especially those speaking up on violations in the Papuan region. Those who organised or have been involved in protests against the creation of new provinces in Papua have also been arrested and ill-treated and some have faced excessive or deadly force from the security forces. Farmers and activists in Wadas were arrested for opposing a mining project. The press freedom ranking for Indonesia has dropped and digital repression continues to be reported.


Human rights defenders facing defamation charges

In March 2022, two human rights defenders were charged with defamation for speaking up about human rights violations connected to corporate crime in Papua, allegedly linked to government officials.

As previously documented, the case stemmed from a YouTube talk show in August 2021 during which human rights defenders Fatia Maulidiyanti and Haris Azhar discussed the findings of an investigative report conducted by several NGOs revealing the alleged connection of Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and several other authorities, with gold mining activities in the Blok Wabu area in Intan Jaya district of Papua.

Following the release of the video, the Coordinating Minister sent two subpoenas on 26th August and 2nd September 2021. On 22nd September, the Coordinating Minister reported them to the police using the Electronic Information and Transactions Law (ITE Law) – a vague and overbroad law that has often been used to arrest, prosecute and punish activists, journalists and government critics. He further demanded that each pay him 100 billion rupiahs (approximately USD 7 million) as compensation.

On 17th March 2022, the Greater Jakarta Regional Police Investigators officially announced Fatia Maulidiyanti, Coordinator of the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), and Haris Azhar, Founder of Lokataru Foundation, as suspects in a defamation lawsuit filed by the Coordinating Minister in September 2021 under Article 27(3) in conjunction with Article 45 of the Electronic Information and Transaction Law (ITE Law) and Articles 310(1) and 311 of the Penal Code. On 21st March 2022, the two were questioned further by the police.

Two days later, on 23rd March 2022, nine NGOs reported Luhut Binsar Panjaitan to the police for alleged gratification related to the situation in Intan Jaya and presented their findings based on their research that the two defenders had discussed. The police, however, refused to process the report.

In November 2021, Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, raised concerns on the case and called on the government to immediately stop using criminal laws to harass human rights defenders who have spoken out against alleged corruption. She added that “defamation laws are being used in Indonesia to undermine the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Threats against human rights defender

On 17th March 2022, hundreds of protesters from Laskar Merah Putih, a pro-government mass organisation, held a protest in front of the office of Amnesty International Indonesia demanding the government expel the organisation from the country while holding posters intimidating Usman Hamid, the executive director and calling him a ‘traitor’.

The human rights group has called on the government to conduct a full investigation into human rights abuses in the Papuan region and to include Papuan people in any discussions on the easternmost province’s special autonomy status.

Usman Hamid said: “I am deeply concerned over this protest. It reminds me of militaristic [methods] of the New Order regime to silence human rights activists and groups”.

The activist told CIVICUS that he has continued to be approached by government officials for meetings which have been intimidatory because of his activism and has also faced attacks online.

Papuan human rights defender detained for a year and still ill

Papuan human rights defender Victor Yeimo has now spent a year in detention as his trial continues. Victor Yeimo, a pro-independence activist and international spokesperson of the West Papua National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat or KNPB), was arrested on 9th May 2021 and has been charged with treason under Articles 106 and 110 of the Indonesian Criminal Code.

Human rights groups believe the charges stemmed from his peaceful involvement in anti-racism protests in 2019 and his participation at a UN Human Rights Council session the same year. On the day of his arrest he was denied access to legal assistance and to his family.

Since his arrest he has been suffering from severe health conditions. Yeimo has been diagnosed with empyema of the gallbladder, tuberculosis, hypocalcemia and leukocytosis. He also has a history of gastric and lung disease. His trial has had to be postponed several times due to this.

On 18th May 2022, the courts postponed his trial once again as Yeimo is still suffering from tuberculosis and required treatment outside the prison. The judges also ordered the prosecutors to ensure his detention met the standards of detainees suffering from TB.

Torture of Papuan political prisoners

In April 2022, human rights groups TAPOL, LBH Kaki Abu and LBH Makassar called for the release of six political prisoners from Sorong, West Papua, who were subjected to torture and unfair trial. Three of the six detainees are still minors.

The six were detained following an attack on a military post in Kisor, Maybrat regency in September 2021. According to the groups, they were allegedly beaten when detained, their eyes covered with duct tape, and some were coughing blood as a result. One of them, Augustinus Yam, had his ears stapled while Mikael Yam was hit with a ringed fist. They were then secretly transferred from Sorong to Makassar on the island of Sulawesi on 29th December without informing the prisoners’ families or lawyers. The move may have been designed to weaken their legal protection. They are currently facing charges of murder, while unfair trial concerns have been raised including intimidation and threats to plead guilty.

Peaceful Assembly

Arrests and ill-treatment of Papuan student protesters

On 11th March 2022, Indonesian police arrested at least 90 Papuan students during a protest action near the Presidential Palace complex in Central Jakarta. The demonstration by the Papuan students was to oppose the creation of new provinces in Papua.

According to reports, five protesters suffered injuries during arrest. One of the six students, Ince, was kicked in the chest by a police officer and fell unconscious. Another, Bob, suffered scratches to his leg and chest after being kicked. Samuel Purwaro was kicked and dragged into a vehicle and suffered injuries to his right eye, and Deris Murib was kicked in the forehead and back. Daten meanwhile was struck on the head using a motorcycle helmet and another protester was kicked by police. A number of other police officers were also reportedly injured. After being arrested, the students were taken to the Metro Jaya regional police headquarters.

Two killed by police during protest in Yahukimo in Papua

On 15th March 2022, Indonesian security forces killed two people and wounded several more when they fired into a crowd of hundreds of protesters in the Yahukimo regency opposing the government move to create new provinces in the restive Papua region.

Thousands of indigenous Papuans had staged peaceful protests since 11th March 2022 against plans to carve Papua into six provinces. Critics say the plans are part of Jakarta’s divide-and-rule tactics to obstruct the separatist movement.

Police claimed that the protesters in Dekai, the main town in Yahukimo, were attacking personnel and setting fire to property. Protesters said police responded with gunfire against some who were throwing stones. The angry crowd then set fire to nearby buildings, including the Yahukimo Information and Communications Office.

Police use water cannon and rubber bullets against protesters

On 10th May 2002, thousands gathered in several locations near the provincial capital Jayapura to protest against the plan to break up the Papua region into six provinces. Images showed anti-riot police deployed with heavy equipment being deployed and the presence of more than 1,000 police officers. Authorities used a water cannon as well as tear gas to disperse the protesters in Waena, on the outskirts of Jayapura.

Papua Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) director Emanuel Gobay said one of protesters had been shot by a rubber bullet allegedly fired by a police officer and was in a critical condition. Another participant suffered injuries after being assaulted by police. He was kicked in the chest by a police officer.

Political activists detained overnight around protests in Papua

On the same day, human rights group TAPOL reported that police had arrested seven individuals at the office of KontraS Papua in Jayapura. They include Jefry Wenda, the spokesperson of the Papuan People’s Petition (Petisi Rakyat Papua, PRP), a coalition of grassroots organisations which promotes the right to self-determination for West Papuans and has denounced special autonomy as having failed to address the marginalisation of West Papuans and their aspirations for genuine democracy.

Others arrested include several members of the West Papuan National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, KNPB) including Ones Suhuniap, Omizon Balingga and Imam Kogoya. Others arrested were Marthen Rumbiak (West Papua National Authority, WPNA) and activists Esther Haluk and Aby Douw.

According to the police, they were arrested for allegedly violating the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law for calling on social media for people to join protests on 10th May 2022 against the government’s plan to break up the Papua region into six provinces. Police confiscated a computer and a printer during the arrest.

The Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet) condemned the arrests stating that the invitation to demonstrate shared on social media was part of the right to freedom of assembly and expression of citizens’ opinions.

All seven have since been released after interrogation by the police at the Papua regional police headquarters. Three were detained overnight before being released.

Farmers and activists arbitrarily arrested, beaten around mining project

On 8th February 2022, dozens of farmers and activists were arrested for protesting against a mining project in West Java province. At least 64 people were rounded up - 13 of them children - and taken away when police moved in to break up a peaceful protest against a proposed mine near Wadas, a village in Purworejo district in Central Java province. Many of those arrested were allegedly beaten before being led away.

Police began removing people when villagers asked the surveyors from the Land Office of Purworejo to leave. Villagers say the proposed mine poses a threat to the environment, water sources and their way of life. Police said officers moved in because some of the villagers were armed with sharp weapons, but villagers denied police allegations. All those arrested were released the next day.

According to The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), the dispute in Wadas started in 2018 when the government determined that an area of 114 hectares in Wadas village would be used as an andesite mining site that would provide the rocks needed to build the Bener dam at a location eight kilometres northwest of the village. Since then, the local people of Wadas have rejected the plan to take over their land, citing environmental and social concerns.

A preliminary investigation by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) found that the police used physical violence. It said this had caused trauma among some villagers, including children, with several people fleeing their homes and not as yet returning.


Seven facing treason charges for raising a flag

As previously documented, seven individuals were formally charged with treason (makar) at the Jayapura state court on 17th May 2022 for raising the banned Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence. The seven raised the flag at the Cenderawasih Sports Center for about 30 minutes and then lowered it.

Those charged under Articles 106 and 110 of the Indonesian Criminal Code include Melvin Yobe (29), Melvin Fernando Waine (25), Devion Tekege (23), Yosep Ernesto Matuan (19), Maksimus SimonPetrus You (18), Lukas Kitok Uropmabin (21) and Ambrosius Fransiskus Elopere (21).

Dozens of peaceful pro-independence political activists have been prosecuted for treason just for raising the Morning Star flag or participating in peaceful protests over the last two decades.

Press freedom group chief targeted in hacking and disinformation attacks

The chairperson of press freedom group Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Sasmito Madrim, was targeted in hacking and disinformation attacks.

On 23rd February 2022, an unknown party simultaneously hacked the WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook accounts and the personal mobile number of Sasmito. His WhatsApp account was the first to be hacked when the instant messaging application notified Sasmito on his mobile phone that his number had been registered to another device.

Later that day, the hack had spread to his Instagram and Facebook accounts. The hacker then deleted all his Instagram posts before uploading Sasmito’s personal contact information. Meanwhile, on Facebook, Sasmito’s profile picture was changed to a pornographic image. Afterwards, his mobile number could no longer receive calls and SMS messages.

On 24th February, AJI Indonesia noticed disinformation attacks brandishing Sasmito’s name and photo on social media. The posts were trying to pit AJI Indonesia against other civil society organisations and communities, including in Wadas (see case above).

Drop in press freedom rankings

In the recent press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Indonesia’s ranking dropped from 113 to 117 out of 180 countries. The organisation noted that while hundreds of independent media have emerged since Indonesia began a transition to democracy, concerns remain including the use of restrictive laws against journalists such as the ITE law, under which journalists can be jailed for up to six years for online defamation (article 27) or online hate speech (article 28).

RSF said that journalists who investigate cases of local corruption are often subjected to various forms of intimidation by police or soldiers, ranging from arrest to physical violence. This results in a high level of self-censorship. It can also be dangerous for journalists to cover environmental issues when they affect large private interests that are supported by local officials. The military also carefully prevents the media from covering its use of force to suppress separatist protests in the two provinces that make up Papua.

Report highlights ongoing digital repression

In March 2022, the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet) launched the Indonesia Digital Rights Situation Report 2021. Based on their monitoring and analysis, the situation of digital rights in Indonesia throughout 2021 did not improve. The report noted disruptions to Internet access in Papua. During 2021, at least 12 disruptions occurred for security or technical reasons. The reports also documented the criminalisation of citizens’ expression using digital media, with at least 30 criminal cases over the year. 2021 was also marked by rampant digital attacks against civil society, especially critical groups such as journalists, activists and other human rights defenders.