Treason trial of West Papua’s Victor Yeimo begins amid calls for his release

Papuan leader Victor Yeimo
Detained Papuan leader Victor Yeimo ... "clear victim" of Indonesian racism and his health is deteriorating. Image: Foreign Correspondent

By Johnny Blades, RNZ Pacific journalist

The trial of West Papuan political prisoner Victor Yeimo has begun in an Indonesian court in Jayapura.

Yeimo, who is a spokesman for the pro-independence West Papua National Committee (KNPB), is charged with treason and incitement over his alleged role in anti-racism protests that turned into riots in 2019.

Amnesty International Indonesia’s Usman Hamid said Yeimo was a peaceful pro-independence activist who had not committed a crime.

He said Indonesian authorities were using criminal code provisions to prosecute several peaceful pro-independence political activists in Papua simply for peacefully exercising their human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

Riots and unrest arose from some of the 2019 protests, resulting in buildings being destroyed and dozens of people killed, although the role of militia groups in inflaming the situation has yet to be brought to account.

However, Yeimo has denied he was involved in the protests in question.

Hamid said it appeared that authorities targetted Yeimo because he had significant influence as a spokesman for the KNPB which had persistently called for an independence referendum for West Papua.

Failure to recognise ‘peaceful expression’
According to him, Indonesia’s government had failed to differentiate between peaceful expression and violent expression.

“As long as it’s related to a political call for independence, self-determination or referendum, the government had never tolerated this. Although it is actually allowed by Indonesian special autonomy law,” Hamid said.

“So I see no reason to lock him up in prison, especially in what we call solitary confinement in the prison of the Mobile Brigade of the special force of the police.”

If convicted, Victor Yeimo faces a maximum range of sentences from 20 years to life in prison.

Protesters march against racism in Jayapura, August 2019.
Protesters march against racism in Jayapura, August 2019. Image: Whens Tebay/RNZ

The 39-year-old was the latest Papuan detained for treason allegations following widespread protests in August and September 2019, including the so-called “Balikpapan Seven”.

The Seven, who include KNPB members, received jail terms of between 10 and 11 months in a trial carried out in East Kalimantan province.

The protests two years ago began in response to racist harassment of Papuan university students in Java, and spread across several cities and towns in Papua, including a smaller number of protests which spilled into deadly rioting in Jayapura, Manokwari and Wamena.

Concerns for Yeimo’s health
Amnesty and others including the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Mary Lawlor have voiced concern about Yeimo’s health after more than three months in custody.

“He has been held in solitary confinement in a cramped and poorly ventilated cell which has further worsened his pre-existing medical condition,” Amnesty noted.

“With a record of lung and gastric diseases and having recently suffered from hemoptysis (coughing up blood) and heightened risk of COVID-19, we are concerned about his deteriorating health.”

Lack of faith in system
In the provinces of West Papua and Papua, Indonesian security forces routinely clamp down on Papuan protests, while military forces are also engaged in ongoing armed conflict with guerilla fighters of the West Papua Papua Liberation Army in the highlands region.

Hamid described the rule of law in Papua as weak, and said grassroots Papuans had increasingly lost faith in the ability of the Indonesian justice system to address the many abuses their communities have experienced.

“If Indonesia wants them to be part of Indonesia, stop the natural resources exploitation, over-exploitation, stop the over-presence of the military, stop the killing, and bring those responsible for the killings, for the torture, for any crimes against Papuans to justice.”

In recent weeks, peaceful protests by Papuans calling for Yeimo’s release have been forcibly stopped by Indonesian police who say the risk of covid-19 means such public events aren’t allowed.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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