The Balikpapan district court in Indonesia found seven Papuan men guilty of treason. The seven men prosecuted are part of the “Balikpapan Seven” group of West Papuan activists and university students who were arrested last August. They were found guilty for their involvement in anti-racism protests that erupted as a response to racist attacks on Papuan students. Buchtar Tabuni, one of the leaders of the United Liberations Movement for West Papua, an organisation advocating West Papuan independence, is among those who have been sentenced to 11 months in prison. Two other members of the group and four university students have also been sentenced to 11 and 10 months respectively.
Since the arrest and prosecution of the seven Papuans, many Indonesians have marched onto the streets to protest against their imprisonment. In support of these activists, the Human Rights Watch organization publicly released a statement urging for the release of the Papuans claiming that Papuans should not have been sentenced to any time in prison. Andreas Harsono, an Indonesian researcher at Human Rights Watch commented on the trials saying “They were protesting against racism but are convicted of treason”. He then proceeded by saying, “the offence here is not the Papuans’ actions, but Jakarta’s willingness to prosecute peaceful dissent and tarnish Indonesia’s international reputation.” Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer expressed that “the verdicts…reflect racism under the Indonesian justice system.” She added that “no matter what happens, West Papuans ‘must’ be found guilty by Indonesian courts, especially in treason and incitement cases.”
Reportedly, Papuan politicians, officials and leaders have signed a petition to urge President Joko Widodo to drop the charges against them. The Balikpapan trials in Indonesia resonate with the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. The Reuters has claimed the Black Lives Matter movement inspired a “local adaptation—Papuan Lives Matter—which Indonesians have used on social media and in street demonstrations calling for the Papuans’ release.” While the demonstrations were sparked by the prosecution of the “Balikpapan Seven”, it has initiated a larger discussion on the issue of racial injustice in Indonesia. Indonesians are now openly sharing their experiences of racism and discrimination in an online forum that has gained traction within the country.
Racial injustice is a global pandemic that is affecting many minority populations across the world such as the Indonesian Papuans. The seven Papuans should not have been arrested, let alone, sentenced to any time in prison. The Indonesian government should not be convicting them of treason for protesting against racism and discrimination. Instead, the government should be supporting Papuans and focussing effort on ending the racial injustices they face.
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