By Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta
A pro-independence activist in Indonesia’s Papua province will stand trial next week on charges of treason, says his lawyer.
A day earlier, one protester suffered gunshot wounds when police opened fire to disperse a rally demanding the activist Victor Yeimo’s release, activists and a church group said.
Yeimo’s attorney, Gustav Kawer, said his client’s arraignment was scheduled for Tuesday, August 24, and expressed concern about his deteriorating health.
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“Despite his health condition, he is still forced to go on trial. This is an attempt to pursue a timetable regardless of the quality of the trial,” Kawer told BenarNews.
Yeimo, the international spokesman for the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), a group seeking a referendum on independence for the region, was arrested in May for allegedly leading anti-Jakarta demonstrations that turned into deadly riots there in 2019.
Yeimo is facing charges of treason, desecration of state symbols, and weapons smuggling, police said. He could face two years to a maximum of life in prison, if found guilty.
In 2019, more than 40 people were killed in Papua during demonstrations and riots sparked by the harsh and racist treatment of Papuan students by government security personnel in Java that August.
The incident cast another spotlight on longtime allegations of Indonesian government forces engaging in racist actions against indigenous people in mainly Melanesian Papua, where violence linked to a pro-independence insurgency has simmered for decades, and grown in recent months.
Last year, at least 13 Papuan activists and students were convicted for raising Morning Star flags — the symbol of the Papuan independence movement — during pro-referendum rallies in 2019 as part of nationwide protests against racism towards Papuans.
They were sentenced to between nine and 11 months in prison on treason charges.
Team of doctors ‘not independent’
Yeimo’s lawyer, Kawer, said that repeated requests from the legal team for his client to undergo a comprehensive health check-up were denied, although he had complained of chest pain and coughed up blood.
Yeimo is being detained at a facility run by the Mobile Brigade police unit, Kawer said. The activist is lodged in a cell with minimal lighting, poor air circulation, and located next to a septic tank, he added.
Kawer said he had sent a letter to the prosecutor’s office requesting that Yeimo be transferred to the main Abepura prison in Jayapura but there had been no response.
Kawer acknowledged that his client had previously undergone two health examinations since his detention — the last one on June 17 — but they had not been thorough.
“We suspect that the team of doctors is not independent. We are very worried that the results will be brought to court, but they are not in accordance with Yeimo’s actual condition,” Kawer said.
Police spokesman Ahmad Musthofa Kamal denied that Yeimo was ailing.
“He is fine. He has been examined by hospital doctors, not from the police, and is accompanied by a lawyer,” Kamal said.
Bail to be requested
The head of the Papuan branch of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), Frits Ramandey, said he would request bail for Yeimo.
Yeimo’s arrest was not his first brush with the law.
In 2009, he was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for leading a rally demanding a referendum on self-determination for Papua.
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua and annexed the region, which makes up the western half of New Guinea Island. Papua was formally incorporated into Indonesia after a disputed UN-sponsored ballot called the “Act of Free Choice” in 1969.
Locals and activists said the vote was a sham because only about 1000 people took part. However, the United Nations accepted the result, which essentially endorsed Jakarta’s rule.
The region is rich in natural resources but remains among Indonesia’s poorest and underdeveloped ones.
‘They beat us with rifle butts’
On Monday, a 29-year-old protester, Ferianus Asso, suffered a gunshot wound to his stomach after police opened fire to disperse the crowd during a rally demanding Yeimo’s release in Yahukimo regency on Monday.
“Ferianus is still undergoing treatment at a hospital in Yahukimo,” said Jefry Wenda, spokesman for the Papuan People’s Petition.
Wenda said police detained at least 48 protesters in Yahukimo but all but four had been released.
Papuan police spokesman Kamal said all detainees had been released.
“We are not detaining any protester at the moment,” Kamal said.
In the provincial capital Jayapura, KNPB chairman and former political prisoner Agus Kossay suffered a head injury after he was hit by a police gunstock — a support to which the barrel of a gun is attached.
“They sprayed us with water and beat us with rifle butts until we bled, but even if they beat and kill us, we will still fight racism, colonialism and capitalism,” Kossay said in a video clip sent to BenarNews.
‘Violating’ covid-19 rules
Jayapura police chief Gustav R. Urbinas said the mass dispersal was carried out because the demonstration did not have an official permit and violated covid-19 social distancing rules.
Urbinas said that the crowd attacked the police who tried to disband the protest.
“Our personnel had to take firm action to prevent them from causing public disturbances,” he said in a statement.
Kossay, however, said the organisers had notified the police about the protest three days earlier.
Reverend Socratez S. Yoman, president of the Fellowship of Baptist Churches of West Papua, condemned the use of violence by police against the protesters.
“This kind of cruelty and violence by the security forces has led to an increase in the Papuan people’s distrust of Indonesia,” he said in an open letter.
Ronna Nirmala is a journalist with Benar News.