Rights groups have slammed a last-minute decision to deny parole to five Papuans jailed on charges of treason over a peaceful protest in August last year. The activists were calling for an end to racism against Papuan students and a referendum on self-determination for West Papua.

People’s Front for West Papua spokesperson Paulus Suryanta Ginting and Papuan student activists Ambrosius Mulait, Dano Tabuni, Charles Kossay and Ariana Elopere were sentenced to nine months’ jail on charges of makar (treason, subversion, rebellion) and criminal conspiracy. A sixth activist, Isay Wenda, was sentenced to eight months in the same case. He was released in April after serving his full term. Suryanta (also known as Surya Anta) – a leading member of the leftist People’s Liberation Party who earned the government’s ire in 2016 for publicly apologising for Indonesian repression against indigenous Papuans – is the first non-Papuan Indonesian to be charged with treason for supporting West Papuan independence.

He was one of eight activists arrested following a rally on 28 August last year, during which the banned Morning Star independence flag was flown. The arrests took place amid a wave of sometimes violent protests and riots in Papua and West Papua provinces in August and September against racism and calling for independence. The protests erupted after a video circulated of right-wing militia and military personnel racially abusing indigenous Papuan students outside their dormitory in the East Java city of Surabaya. Papuans demonstrated in at least 30 cities across the country. Rioting Papuans burned down the local parliament building in Manokwari, as well as prisons in Sorong, West Papua province, and Jayapura, Papua province.

In early April, the Ministry of Law and Human Rights introduced a policy allowing the conditional release of those who have served two-thirds of their sentences. The aim is to reduce overcrowding in Indonesia’s prisons. Official data shows 270,386 prisoners across the archipelago – more than twice the official prison capacity. Many jails lack proper sanitation and clean water, making inmates particularly susceptible to the spread of COVID-19. As of 10 May, the ministry had released 37,014 convicts and 2,259 child detainees. Another 10,000 releases are planned.

Suryanta, Mulait, Tabuni and Kossay are being detained in Salemba prison in Central Jakarta. Ariana Elopere is being held at the Pondok Bambu women’s detention centre in East Jakarta. According to the Jakarta Post, 24 prisoners have tested positive at the detention centre and 12 more are awaiting results.

UK-based human rights group Tapol (“political prisoner” in Indonesian) condemned the “political decision” to cancel the early release, and said that the prisoners had all been tested negative for COVID-19 and given a small meal to take home. But the prison’s head of registration announced that their release had been cancelled due to political intervention by the central government.

According to Mike Himan, head of the Papua Advocacy Team, which has been representing the prisoners since their arrest last year, prison officials said those who committed “crimes against state security” were not eligible for early release. Himan said that the cancellation was an act of discrimination and urged the Indonesian ombudsman and the National Commission on Human Rights to demand that the prisoners be released “for humanitarian and safety reasons”.

In a statement on 13 May, Amnesty International said that the coronavirus epidemic is yet another reason to release all prisoners of conscience. “This postponement is unacceptable”, said Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid. “These prisoners of conscience should not have spent a single day in detention and must be freed immediately. Authorities have invoked both Covid-19 and threats to national security as reasons for the delay – but the fact is they should not be in jail at all.”

They are not the only political prisoners in Indonesia. In April, an urgent appeal was filed with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the UN special rapporteurs by advocate Jennifer Robinson and Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman, backed by Tapol, on behalf of 63 political prisoners. They are 56 West Papuans, five South Maluku Republic activists, one Indonesian (Suryanta) and one Polish national. Tapol said that documents show that all the detainees are being “arbitrarily and unlawfully detained in violation of Indonesia’s international human rights obligations”.

The East Timor and Indonesian Action Network, a non-profit advocacy organisation based in the United States, noted recently that, while Indonesia struggles to contain the spread of COVID-19, the government still holds anti-racism and pro-independence prisoners in jails across West Papua, Jakarta and Balikpapan. “In many cases, trials have continued against these political prisoners endangering the health of the prisoners, lawyers, judges and court staff”, the network said in a statement.

UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet has warned governments of the “catastrophic” consequences for detainees and the wider community of failing to address prison overcrowding and poor detention conditions during the pandemic. Bachelet called on governments to “release every person detained without sufficient legal basis” and to “release those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, among them older detainees and those who are sick, as well as low-risk offenders”.

Despite everything that they have endured since their arrests, Suryanta and his companions remain committed to highlighting the injustices taking place in Papua.

“This was the high price that had to be paid by the Papua tapols for the sake of creating justice and self-respect for the Papuan people”, Shaleh Al Ghifari, one of the lawyers from the Papua Advocacy Team, told Suara.com. Ghifari added that, following their eventual release, they will work to provide support and solidarity with other Papuan activists still in jail and are calling on the Indonesian government to release unconditionally all political prisoners.

They are also demanding that the government stop criminalising pro-democracy activists and calling for an end to repression and racial discrimination against those who want to express themselves in public.

Despite the growing risk of COVID-19 getting into Indonesia’s overcrowded and unsanitary jails, the five will now have to serve out their full sentences before being freed on 26 May.

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