An Indonesian court sentenced Wednesday, seven Papuan activists, to up to 11 months in prison after declaring them guilty of treason for their involvement in anti-racism rallies in West Papua last summer.
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Known as the “Balikpapan Seven,” the men were convicted over protests that were sparked by a viral video in which Papuan students were called “monkeys” and subjected to other racist taunts.
Before the hearing, protesters across Indonesia have been calling for the treason charges to be abandoned and have staged various demonstrations as the Black Lives Matter movement prompted greater discussion of injustices facing West Papuans in the Southeast-Asian country.
Indonesian prosecutors had sought 17 years of imprisonment for the seven activists.
Papuan activist Filep Karma who was detained for more than 10 years in 2004 for waving the Morning Star flag – a symbol of Papuan independence banned in Indonesia – said that the shorter sentences may reflect the level of attention the case has received domestically and abroad.
“It seems that the country is considering the international pressure, and also perhaps they are afraid that Papua will be in turmoil again,” he said.
“If the Indonesian government is truly fair and being honest that they have committed to wrongdoing when arresting these people, they have to admit and give them compensation.”
Human rights groups including Human Rights Watch added that the Papuans should not stay “even a single night behind bars”.
“They were protesting against racism but are convicted of treason,” Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
“The offense here is not the Papuans’ actions, but Jakarta’s willingness to prosecute peaceful dissent and tarnish Indonesia’s international reputation.”
Protests against racial abuse against Papuan students, allegedly perpetrated by the police, began in Jayapura in August last year and continued for weeks.
Thousands of people took part in the rallies, some of which turned violent. Witnesses alleged that dozens of protesters were detained and killed by Indonesian security forces.
The Indonesian government accused the Balikpapan Seven of using the protest to promote the “Free West Papua” campaign.
A total of 36 other Papuan political prisoners are still imprisoned for treason after last year's uprising among concerns over the spread of Covid-19 in Indonesian prisons.