63 political prisoners in Indonesia file urgent appeals amid virus pandemic

Women protest
An International Women's Day 2020 rally in Jakarta in solidarity with Papuan women political prisoners Sayang Mandabayan and Ariana Lokbere. Image: Tapol

By Jennifer Robinson and Veronica Koman with the support of TAPOL

Sixty-three political prisoners detained on treason charges in Indonesia have made a joint urgent appeal to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and UN Special Rapporteurs in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

The prisoners instructed us – freedom legal advocate Jennifer Robinson and Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman, with the support of the human rights organisation TAPOL – to bring their cases to the UN.

The urgent appeal demonstrates that all 63 prisoners are being arbitrarily and unlawfully detained in violation of Indonesia’s international human rights obligations.

READ MORE: Political prisoners should be among first released in pandemic response, says UN rights chief

The prisoners are 56 indigenous West Papuans, five Moluccans, one Indonesian, and one Polish citizen.

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

The great majority of the political prisoners (56) were arrested in the crackdown by Indonesian authorities during the mass protest movement in support of West Papua in 2019 (“the West Papua Uprising”).

The activities for which they have been detained range from simply carrying or displaying the West Papuan or Moluccan national flags, to participation in peaceful protests and being members of political organisations which support self-determination – all internationally protected activities.

Charged with treason
All 63 political prisoners have been charged with treason (makar) under Article 106 and/or Article 110 of Indonesia’s Criminal Code, which can carry a sentence of up to 20 years.

The 56 names were delivered to President Jokowi when he visited Australia in February and later to the Indonesian chief security minister, but we so far have not received any response, except the minister saying that the data was “probably just trash”.

We urge the UN and the Indonesian government to take this matter very seriously now that lives are at stake.

The urgent appeal calls for all 63 prisoners to be immediately and unconditionally released due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the particular risk of outbreak in Indonesia’s overcrowded and unsanitary prisons.

In the wake of the pandemic, the UN High Commissioner has called for political prisoners to be released as a matter of priority.

Indonesia, which has the highest pandemic death toll in Asia, has acknowledged the risk of the spread of Covid-19 due to prison overcrowding and has already released 30,000 prisoners.

But the 63 political prisoners, who pose no threat to society, remain in prison.

These urgent appeals have been made given the imminent threat to the prisoners’ lives from being detained in overcrowded prisons amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Indonesia.

Their detention is now not only unlawful, but life-threatening. All 63 prisoners should be immediately and unconditionally released.

The cases include:

This picture of Sayang Mandabayan, one of the first women to have ever been charged with treason, breastfeeding her baby behind bars went viral on social media and stirred protest over human rights violations by Indonesia. Image: TAPOL

Sayang Mandabayan (34), one of the few women to have ever been charged with treason, was arrested and detained in September 2019 after speaking at protests during the West Papua Uprising when police found 1496 small Morning Star flags in her bag. As a result of her arbitrary and unlawful detention, she is separated from her 1, 2, and 3-year-old young children, and is only occasionally able to breast feed her youngest child in Manokwari of West Papua. She lost her job at Sorong City Council as a result of her arrest and detention. A picture of her breast feeding her child in prison went viral in Indonesia and beyond, with calls for her release.

Mandabayan is one of 56 indigenous West Papuan prisoners who are part of the joint urgent appeal.

The 63 prisoners also include Paulus “Suryanta” Ginting, spokesperson for the Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua (Front Rakyat Indonesia untuk West Papua), the first non-Papuan Indonesian to be charged with treason in relation to the West Papuan self-determination movement, and Jakub Skrzypski, a Polish citizen and the first foreign citizen to be charged and convicted of treason for meeting with a West Papuan political organisation advocating for self-determination.

An elderly couple, Izaak Siahaja (80) and Pelpina Siahaja (72), are in prison – convicted of treason and sentenced to 5.5 and 5 years – simply because the banned Benang Raja flag, the national flag of the Republic of the South Moluccas, was displayed inside their home.

West Papuan human rights lawyer, Gustaf Kawer, added his voice to the concerns about the impact of Covid and has called for the suspension of all legal proceedings amid the pandemic and for all the political prisoners to be immediately released.

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