Indonesian police have arrested an independence activist in Papua on suspicion of treason and sedition in connection with anti-Jakarta protests that turned into deadly riots in the region two years ago, authorities said on Monday.
The arrest of Victor Yeimo, chairman of the National Committee for West Papua (KNPB), a Papuan civil organization seeking to hold a referendum on self-determination for Papua, came over the weekend against a backdrop of escalating tensions in the Far East region.
The Indonesian president has ordered a crackdown on armed Papuan separatist rebels after he assassinated the government’s intelligence chief for the region in late April.
Yeimo was arrested in the provincial capital Jayapura on Sunday after being on the run for almost two years, said Iqbal Alqudusy, police spokesman for a counterinsurgency task force known as the ‘Operation Nemangkawi.
“He was named a suspect based on testimony which described him as the leader of the protests, who delivered speeches on Papua’s independence,” Iqbal told BenarNews.
Yeimo, 42, faces up to 12 years if convicted of treason, police said.
His arrest was not his first run-in with the law.
In 2009, Yeimo was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for leading a rally demanding a referendum on self-determination for Papua. The Melanesian-majority region, which includes the provinces of Papua and West Papua, was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a UN administered ballot.
In 2019, more than 40 people were killed in Papua in protests and riots sparked by the harsh and racist treatment of Papuan students by government security personnel in Java in August.
Papua Police Chief Inspector General Mathius Fakhiri said Yeimo fled to neighboring Papua New Guinea after the 2019 unrest.
“Yeimo admitted that he returned to Jayapura in September 2020,” Fakhiri said, as quoted by Suara.com.
On August 19, 2019, Yeimo shouted “Free Papua” as he delivered a speech outside the provincial governor’s office, Fakhiri said, accusing Yeimo of being the “mastermind” of mass protests that “took place. ended in anarchism and damage to public facilities. “
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded the region of Papua – which constitutes the western half of the island of New Guinea – and annexed it.
Many Papuans and rights groups said the 1969 vote, known as the Free Choice Act, was a sham because it only affected around 1,000 people.
Last year at least 13 Papuan activists and students were convicted of waving Morning Star flags – the symbol of the Papuan independence movement – at pro-referendum rallies in 2019 as part of nationwide protests against racism against Papuans . They were sentenced to between nine and eleven months in prison for treason.
“A far-fetched accusation”
Last month, the Indonesian government designated the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM) and its armed wing, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), as terrorists.
This happened after the TPNPB claimed responsibility for the murder of the army brigadier. General I Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha Karya in a roadside ambush in the Puncak regency on April 25. Putu Danny led the State Intelligence Agency’s Papua operation.
The TPNPB also said it killed two teachers, a motorcycle taxi driver and a 16-year-old teenager in separate incidents in April. The rebels said the civilians were working as spies for the government.
The killings prompted President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to order government forces to step up operations against the rebels.
Sam Awom, the Papuan coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS), called Yeimo’s arrest “arbitrary” and said it was the result of the government’s designation of the separatists as well as terrorists.
“We, the activists, are very worried about this, because the designation [of Papuan rebels] because terrorists will not solve the problem. In fact, what the government needs to do is open as much space as possible for dialogue between the government and the OPM, ”he told BenarNews, referring to the Free Papua Separatist Movement.
By using the anti-terrorism law to prosecute the Papuan rebels, the police will have the power to arrest more people because they do not need hard evidence, Awom said.
“There is a huge potential for human rights violations such as forced detention and summary executions,” he said.
Awom defended Yeimo, claiming he led a protest in Jayapura in September 2019 that ended peacefully.
“Victor being the mastermind of the riots is a far-fetched accusation, I think,” he said, urging the government to release all political prisoners instead.
Veronica Koman, an Indonesian lawyer who has represented Papuan activists in the past, said Yeimo’s arrest could lead to more unrest in the region.
“Indonesia is giving West Papuans a boost to come back to the streets. Anger has built up since the terrorist labeling, ”Koman said in a message posted on Twitter.
“Several organizations have announced that they would mobilize if Victor Yeimo was not released.