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JAKARTA, INDONESIA - Six activists charged with treason in Jakarta for organizing a protest rally last August outside the presidential palace have been freed from prison.
Paulus Suryanta Ginting, Ambrosius Mulait, Charles Kosay, and Dano Anes Tabuni, along with the only woman in the group, Arina Elopere, were freed this past week.
Issay Wenda, the sixth person, was released April 28. He had been sentenced to eight months in prison, a month less than the others.
At the August 28 rally, a banned separatist flag was raised as activists protested an incident that occurred against Papuans earlier that month in Surabaya in East Java. The Morning Star flag is a symbol of independence for West Papua.
Over 40 students taken
In mid-August, Indonesian authorities stormed a university dormitory in Surabaya, where Papuan students live, concerning allegations someone desecrated the Indonesian flag in the building and threw it into a sewer. Police fired tear gas and took 43 students into custody, while an angry mob that had gathered outside the dormitory chanted, "Kick out Papua" and used racial slurs to describe the students.
The incident triggered nationwide protests and galvanized the pro-independence movement. The Ministry of Communication and Information responded by blocking the internet in Papua. After that happened, some Papuans burned the office of Telkom Indonesia in Jayapura, the capital of Papua.
Ginting, the spokesperson for the Indonesian People's Front for West Papua (FRI-WP), said their indictment was unfair.
"None of us has the initiative; it never crossed our minds that we want to commit treason. We were only protesting; it was a standard rally to make a statement. The only difference there was that flag on August 28. I assumed it was the initiative from the people at the rally," he told VOA.
'No intentions of treason'
Michael Hilman, a member of the legal team representing the activists, said that the facts and evidence presented in court proved they were only protesting because of the incident in Surabaya.
"There were no intentions of treason, or to attack the head of state, there was no violence whatsoever. But the judge's decision did not take into account the facts," he said in a statement.
Five of the six were supposed to be released three weeks earlier under a new decree by the Indonesian Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. The decree initiated an assimilation program for prisoners who have served two-thirds of their prison sentences to be released early because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ginting said they signed the release documents on May 11 and had been tested for the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease. At the last minute, they were told they could not be granted an early release because they were charged of treason.
"We suspect political pressure or alleged abuse of power by the authorities," Hilman said. The Directorate General of Corrections at the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights has not responded to VOA's requests for comments.
Repression in Papua 'getting worse'
Indonesia annexed the region of West Papua in 1969, after some of the population was forced to vote in favor of joining Indonesia. Since then, the area has become a hot spot of conflict with the government's crackdown of separatist movements.
Veronica Koman, a human rights lawyer, said violations and impunity still occur in Papua.
"The repression in Papua is getting worse, because there's a record of arrest in 2016. There were 5,136 arrests; that's already during Jokowi's regime," she said, referring to President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.
The president made a promise to prioritize infrastructure development in Papua. But the president has never addressed the alleged human rights violations. Koman said if the conflict in Papua is not resolved, it will be a ticking time bomb ahead of a violent uprising.
"In a couple of years, there could be a (violent) incident. And then they'd ask, 'Why did it happen?' or 'Who was the provocateur.' Well, you're making them (the Papuans) victims repeatedly and robbing them of their dignity," she said.
Meanwhile, Ginting said he would continue to speak out about the problems in Papua, but he acknowledged there is little he can do during the pandemic. He said the arrests have created momentum for people to start a discussion on Papua.
"I think there are more people who are now curious. They want to find out what exactly is happening in Papua. A lot more people will be more open-minded," he said.