Govt fails to respect freedom of expression in West Papua – Police arrest students and summon church leader

The Government continues to subject the freedom of expression in West Papua to heavy restrictions. The Papuan police severely limit the democratic space and political rights since late August 2019, when people all over Papua went to the streets to protest against racial discrimination against indigenous Papuans. Human rights defenders reported two recent incidents in which the police took action against pupils and a church leader for peacefully expressing their opinion or views.

On 2 May 2020, the police in Nabire arrested five school students and temporarily detained them at the Nabire district police station because they had painted the morning star flag with spray paint on their shirts (see intro image). It is a common practice in West Papua that senior high school students colour their school uniforms on the graduation day as a sign that they have completed their school education.

According to the students, the police chased them with cars and motorcycles. When the students asked for the reason of the arrest, the police claimed that the students had violated the social and physical distancing rules which the local Government had promoted to control the Corona Pandemic in the region. All of them were released on 3 May 2020.

A few days before the incident, the Papuan Regional Police (Polda Papua) summoned the president of the Papuan Baptist Church, Rev. Sofyan Yoman, to clarify the content of an article which he had written for the local news outlet Weko News. The article was published on 3 April 2020 and discussed the interests and historic involvement of Indonesian security forces in the mining operations of the transnational Freeport McMoRan Gold and Copper Mine. Yoman claimed that the TPN-PB was not behind shooting at the Freeport area on 31 March 2020 which resulted in the death of a New Zealand Citizen. Past violent incidents would indicate that Indonesian security forces had financial interests in the mining business, so Rev. Yoman. The church leader asked a lawyer to represent him at the police station. Polda Papua Chief, Paulus Waterpauw, stated that he expects Rev. Yoman to apologize for the content of the article or he might face legal consequences for violation of the Electronic Information and Transaction and Act (ITE Law).

Indonesia is a state party to the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights and is obliged under international law to ensure, respect and protect the freedom of expression in all parts of its territory. The police in West Papua is closely monitoring and prosecuting activists, church leaders and human rights defenders who peacefully advocate for human rights or the right to self-determination.