(Reuters) - Rights groups in Indonesia have complained of escalating intimidation and security threats in the run-up to the verdict in a high-profile treason trial against seven West Papuans that is expected on Wednesday.
Papuan demands for independence or greater autonomy is among the most sensitive topics in Indonesia, but campaigners said the latest intimidation reflects a worsening political atmosphere across the archipelago of 270 million people.
“We have recorded at least 20 incidents in which students, academics, journalists, and activists, have been intimidated for criticising the government and discussing politically sensitive issues, such as rights abuses in Papua,” said Usman Hamid, local executive director of Amnesty International.
The claims of escalating intimidation come as a court in Balikpapan on Indonesian Borneo is expected to rule on a case against seven West Papuans who face between five and 17 years in prison on charges of treason for their purported involvement in anti-racist protests in August last year.
The demonstrations erupted across several cities in Indonesia after a group of Papuan students at a university dormitory in Java were reportedly taunted with racist slurs such as “monkeys”, “pigs” and “dogs”.
In the provinces of Papua and West Papua some of the protests turned violent and deadly, with shops and government building set ablaze.
The defendants were arrested in Jayapura, Papua, last year but moved to a jail in Balikpapan for security reasons.
Protests across several Indonesian cities on Monday called for all charges to be dropped.
Activists have drawn parallels between the treason trial and the Black Lives Matter movement, which has sparked the hashtag #PapuanLivesMatter and led to a series of online forums about perceived racism in Indonesia.
“Racism had no place in Indonesia, a multi-ethnic country with a motto and tradition of unity in diversity,” Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesperson for Indonesia’s foreign ministry told Reuters.
“The incident of mistreatment of Indonesians of Papuan origin are isolated and do not in any way reflect the policies of the government.”
Yuliana Yabansabra, a lawyer defending the seven West Papuans says she was attacked last week by an unidentified motorcyclist, who allegedly punched her in the head while she was driving.
“They didn’t try and take my bag or my wallet, so it seemed their plan was to try and make me crash,” said Yabansabra, “It felt like an act of terror especially directed at me.”
In early June an organiser of a discussion on West Papua was warned by his university in Lampung to cancel the event because it was “anti-government”. He later received anonymous threats on his WhatsApp, including a picture of his identity cards and his parents’ names.
Students have been similarly harassed in Jakarta and Bandung, according to research by Human Rights Watch.
In the past two weeks almost half a dozen forums on West Papua and racism have been obstructed, some by strange sounds such as clanging piano chords, while speakers have been spammed with robocalls from anonymous international numbers.
Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Michael Perry