Imprisoned Papuan activists denied parole under COVID-19 early release program

West Papua rally in Jakarta in August last year.

Rights groups have slammed a last-minute decision to deny parole to five Papuan activists jailed on charges of treason over a peaceful protest in August last year calling for an end to racism against Papuan students and a referendum on self-determination for West Papua.

Known as the Jakarta Six, on April 24, the Central Jakarta District Court sentenced Indonesian People's Front for West Papua (FRI-West Papua) spokesperson Paulus Suryanta Ginting and Papuan student activists Ambrosius Mulait, Dano Tabuni, Charles Kossay and Ariana Elopere to nine months jail on charges of makar (treason, subversion and rebellion) and criminal conspiracy. Isay Wenda meanwhile was sentenced to eight months in the same case.

Wenda was released on April 29 after serving his full term while the remaining five have served just over eight months of their sentences.

Suryanta (also known as Surya Anta) is a leading member of the leftist People's Liberation Party and earned the government's ire in 2016 for publically apologising for Indonesian repression against indigenous Papuans. He is the first non-Papuan Indonesian to be charged with treason for supporting West Papuan independence.

Suryanta was is one of eight activists caught in a series of arrests following a rally on August 28 in front of the State Palace in Central Jakarta, during which the banned Morning Star independence flag was flown.

The arrests took place amid a wave of sometimes violent protests and riots in Papua and West Papua provinces in August and September. Thousands of people took part in rallies protesting anti-Papuan racism and calling for independence. The protests erupted after a video circulated of right-wing militia and military personnel racially abusing indigenous Papuan students outside their dormitory in the East Java city of Surabaya on August 17.

In addition to several rallies in Jakarta, Papuans demonstrated in at least 30 cities across the country. Rioting Papuans burned down the local parliament building in Manokwari, as well as prisons in Sorong, West Papua province, and Jayapura, Papua province.

Overcrowding

In early April, the Ministry of Law and Human Rights introduced a new policy to reduce overcapacity in Indonesia's notoriously overcrowded prisons, allowing for the conditional release of those who have served two-thirds of their sentences.

Official data shows there are 270,386 prisoners across Indonesia ‒ more than twice the official capacity ‒ as the so-called "war on drugs" has led to a surge in the number of people being incarcerated. Many jails lack proper sanitation and clean water, making inmates particularly susceptible to the spread of COVID-19.

Under the COVID-19 assimilation program, as of May 10 the ministry has released 37,014 prisoners and 2259 child detainees. The government plans to release a total of 50,000 prisoners.

Suryanta, Mulait, Tabuni and Kossay are being detained in Salemba prison in Central Jakarta where, according to the Justice Ministry, an official had contracted COVID-19 but has since recovered.

Ariana Elopere meanwhile is being held at the Pondok Bambu women's detention centre in East Jakarta. According to the Jakarta Post, 24 prisoners tested positive at the detention centre after rapid testing and 12 are awaiting the results of more reliable polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

Political decision

British-based human rights group TAPOL condemned the "political decision" to cancel the activists’ early release, and said that on May 11 the five remaining prisoners signed "letters of execution of sentences" and in the evening, guarantors signed "letters of assimilation". The guarantor for Suryanta, Tabuni and Mulait was the Reverend Suarbudaya Rahadian, while Kossay's guarantor was his sister Sati Kossay.

Papua Advocacy Team Lawyer Shaleh Al Ghifari told Suara.com that the six decided not to submit an appeal against their sentences because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He added the decision was taken after intense discussions between the six, family members and their lawyers.

According to TAPOL, on the following day they signed letters confirming assimilation release, tested negative for COVID-19 and were given a small meal to take home.

After these preliminary steps ‒ which should have preceded their release ‒ they waited a further 30 minutes, but were then summoned by the prison's head of registration. He informed them that their release had been cancelled due to political intervention by the central government.

Screwed over

Rahadian believes that the five are being "screwed over" by the government because they had already fulfilled the requirements for conditional release, based on the new policy.

"Their release was imminent, then the powers-that-be intervened in the law, hence the incident today, the state is playing a prank on the Papuan tapols [political prisoners]", the Reverend told Suara.com on May 12.

Rahadian said that the early release policy is discriminatory because it is not being applied to prisoners whose political views are different from the government.

Mike Himan is the head of the Papua Advocacy Team, which has been representing the Jakarta Six since their arrest in August last year. According to Himan, prison officials said those who committed "crimes against state security" were not eligible for early release and that doing so would violate government regulation on correctional procedures.

Himan said that the cancellation was an act of discrimination and urged the Indonesian Ombudsman and the National Commission on Human Rights to demand that the prisoners be released "for humanitarian and safety reasons".

Unacceptable

In a statement on May 13, Amnesty International said the coronavirus pandemic is yet another reason to urgently release all prisoners of conscience.

"This postponement is unacceptable. These prisoners of conscience should not have spent a single day in detention and must be freed immediately,” said Amnesty International Indonesia Executive Director Usman Hamid.

“Authorities have invoked both COVID-19 and threats to national security as reasons for the delay ‒ but the fact is they should not be in jail at all."

The six are of part of a group of 55 political prisoners from Papua, which includes activists, human rights defenders and others imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights or expressing their views, according to AI.

Most were arrested following the wave of protests in August and September last year. That means there are still 50 Papuan political prisoners still in detention, awaiting trial.

In April, an urgent appeal was filed on behalf of 63 political prisoners with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the UN Special Rapporteurs by advocate Jennifer Robinson and Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman, backed by TAPOL.

The prisoners include 56 West Papuans, five South Maluku Republic activists, one Indonesian (Suryanta) and one Polish national.

TAPOL said documents show that the detainees are being "arbitrarily and unlawfully detained, in violation of Indonesia's international human rights obligations”.

"While most of them are on remand and still awaiting trial, seven have been sentenced and others are currently on trial", said TAPOL.

US-based solidarity group, East Timor and Indonesian Action Network (ETAN) noted recently that while Indonesia struggles to contain the spread of COVID-19, the government still holds anti-racism and pro-independence prisoners in jails across West Papua, Jakarta and Balikpapan.

"In many cases, trials have continued against these political prisoners, endangering the health of the prisoners, lawyers, judges and court staff", said ETAN.

On March 25, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned governments of the "catastrophic" consequences for detainees and the wider community of failing to address prison overcrowding and poor detention conditions in the context of COVID-19.

Bachelet called on governments to "release every person detained without sufficient legal basis" and to "release those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, among them older detainees and those who are sick, as well as low-risk offenders".

Undaunted

Despite everything that they have endured since their arrests, Ghifari said Suryanta and his companions are still committed to voicing the injustices taking place in Papua.

"This was the high price that had to be paid by the Papua tapols for the sake of creating justice and self-respect for the Papuan people", Ghifari told Suara.com.

Ghifari added that, following their eventual release, they will work to provide support and solidarity with other Papuan activists still in jail, and are calling on the Indonesian government to unconditionally release all political prisoners.

They are also demanding the government stop the criminalisation of pro-democracy activists for articulating their views and are calling for justice and an end to repression and racial discrimination against those who want to express themselves in public.

Despite the ever-growing risk of COVID-19 getting into Indonesia's overcrowded and unsanitary jails, the five will now have to serve out their full sentences, before being freed on May 26.

[For the latest news and information on Indonesia and West Papua visit the Indoleft website or the Asia Pacific Solidarity Network's (APSN) Indonesia and East Timor News Digest.]

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