Human Rights Watch has called on Indonesian authorities to drop treason charges and release at least 22 activists arrested during protests in Papua in August and September.
The activists were arrested amid demonstrations in Papua and West Papua provinces during which thousands of people took part in rallies protesting alleged racism against Papuans.
The protests erupted after a video was posted online of Papuan students being abused by Indonesian militia outside their dormitory in Surabaya on Aug. 17. The students had allegedly defaced an Indonesian flag.
Papuans took to the streets in at least 30 cities across Indonesia, including Jakarta. The protests saw rioters burn down the local parliament building in Manokwari, as well as prisons in Sorong, and Jayapura.
Most of the 20 men and two women awaiting trial in four cities are charged with treason under laws that were “drafted in such general and vague terms that they can be used arbitrarily to restrict the freedoms of opinion, expression, assembly and association,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Nov. 28.
Most, if not all were arrested for possessing Morning Star flags or expressing support for holding an independence referendum in Papua.
The Morning Star flag is looked upon as a symbol of nationhood among Papuans, while security forces consider displaying it a treasonous activity.
“Papua may be a sensitive topic in Indonesia, but that’s no excuse for rounding people up and sending them to prison for peaceful acts of expression,” said Elaine Pearson, HRW’s Australia director.
“The authorities should drop charges and immediately free people detained for just possessing flags or organizing a protest,” she added.
These prosecutions appear to reflect a fundamental shift by Indonesian President Joko Widodo government regarding free expression and Papua, HRW said.
Widodo had promised in May 2015 to release political prisoners throughout Indonesia and has freed many since, but the arrests of the 22 Papuans had bucked this trend the rights group said.
“The Indonesian government made significant progress in recent years by releasing nearly all political prisoners, yet recent arrests are threatening those fragile gains,” Pearson said.
The rights group’s call comes ahead of Papuan nationalists’ “Independence Day” on Dec. 1, during which Papuans attempt to raise the Morning Star flag which often results in the arrest of many people.
It was first raised on Dec. 1 in 1961 as a mark of independence when the Dutch colonists left.
Papua was later taken over by Indonesia following a 1969 referendum that many Papuans believe was rigged.