West Papuan students need justice

Below is an open letter from Herman Wainggai of the Australia West Papua Association (AWPA) to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Dear Prime Minister,

I am writing on behalf of the Australian West Papuan community and the many other Australians concerned about the imprisonment and mistreatment of a group of students arrested in March after peaceful demonstrations in Jayapura and Manokwari.

They were imprisoned for peacefully expressing their aspirations for the same rights we enjoy here in Australia. West Papuans are denied even the relative freedoms of others in Indonesia and live under an effective occupation by Indonesian security forces.

On March 3 and 13, students and other community members assembled in Jayapura and Manokwari respectively. They were peaceful assemblies of ordinary people expressing themselves democratically as is done throughout the world.

These particular demonstrations focussed on Presidential Decree PP77 that made it illegal to display any "symbol" that the Indonesian Government disapproves of, including the West Papuan "morning star" flag.

The flag holds great cultural importance for West Papuans. Banning it is a violation of internationally accepted rights to cultural expression and free speech.

Following these peaceful assemblies, 16 participating students were arrested and imprisoned. They are being held in police and jail cells that do not meet basic standards. They have been mistreated and tortured while in police custody and their families and friends have also been targets of threats and intimidation. This official harassment continues.

Since their arrests more than two months ago, seven of the 16 students have become sick due to poor conditions and abuse at the hands of their jailers. Some of their complaints include being made to sleep on bare concrete floors, being fed rotten/decomposing food and ongoing physical, psychological and emotional intimidation.

This information comes from the families of those imprisoned, human rights observers and church officials. Observers hold serious concerns for the health and wellbeing of the students.

These students have been arrested under oppressive laws that continue the "climate of fear" in West Papua described by UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders Ms Hina Jilani on January 28.

In early June, four of these students were released without trial after two months of illegal imprisonment. They have been told to expect re-arrest when "more evidence is found".

The remaining 12 are now facing the prospect of political trials that could see them sentenced to 20 years behind bars for the simple act of raising a flag.

Thanks to you Mr Rudd, Australian diplomacy found its heart and backbone. Wednesday April 9 was the day you stood up in front of students in Beijing and demonstrated that true friends speak honestly and fairly to each other.

The Australian diplomatic corps has a renewed integrity and vigour because of your actions. Australians are now asking you to show the same wisdom with regard to Indonesia that you have already demonstrated with China.

The political trials of these students are scheduled to begin this month. It is of urgent importance that the Australian government makes diplomatic representations to the Indonesian Government on behalf of these young people and in protest against laws that prohibit genuine free speech.

It is neither in the interests of Australia nor of Indonesia to have our region's voices violently stifled in this way. This is also an opportunity for Australia to help create a more stable region to our north.

The AWPA would like to meet with you or your representative to provide more information regarding this case. We also look forward to your written response.

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