If you thought Schapelle Corby got a raw deal from the Indonesian justice system, spare a thought for the West Papuan students who survived a vicious attack by police as they slept in their dormitories in Abepura, West Papua, in the early hours of 7 December 2000.
Three West Papuan students were killed and over one hundred others harassed or tortured in the attack.
Last week the survivors were in a South Sulawesi court to hear the verdict on the case. The two police officers charged with perpetrating the violence were found to be not guilty.
The case is the first to come before Indonesia’s newly established Human Rights Court, which was widely viewed as a positive step toward addressing Indonesia’s appalling record on human rights.
However, the verdict sends an ominous message not only to West Papuans, but to all Indonesians, that Indonesia’s legal system cannot be relied upon to deliver justice, and is a reminder of the ongoing impunity of the country’s security forces.
Shortly after 1:00 am on 7 December 2000, a group of unidentified persons attacked the Abepura police station. A policeman, Petrus Eppa, was killed in the melee. In a separate attack on the Autonomy Office in Abepura, a security officer, Markus Padama, was killed. Around 2:30am, then police chief Daud Sihombing and then police superintendent Johny Wailan Usman ordered that the attackers be ‘hunted down’.
The police launched a retaliatory attack against a group of mainly highland students who, according to subsequent investigations by a number of high-profile legal aid and human rights associations, had nothing to do with either the attack on the police station or the attack on the Autonomy Office.
Over the following 24 hours, Brimob (Indonesia’s mobile paramilitary police brigade) raided a series of nearby West Papuan student dormitories. Ninmin Hostel was the immediate target. The BTN Puskopad Abepura housing complex – home to residents from the highland areas of Kotalima, Mamberano and West Wamena – the Yapen Waropen hostel, and the Illaga University Students hostel, were also targeted by police.
One student, Elkius Suhuniap was fatally shot by police during the raids. Over a hundred others, including pregnant women and children, were rounded up by police and taken into custody where they were systematically beaten, tortured and taunted with racist remarks. One West Papuan student recalled the police beating him and spitting on him, saying ‘your mother eats pig and you have the brain of a pig even with your college degree you won’t get a job You Papuans are stupid; stupid and yet you think you can be independent.’
Two other students, Ori Ndoronggi and Johny Karunggu, died in police custody as a result of injuries sustained during torture. Another student, Agus Kabak, was permanently incapacitated while a fourth student, Arnold Mundo Soklayo, was crippled and later died in the West Papuan capital of Jayapura as result of his injuries. The students were tortured and beaten to death in the presence of Swiss journalist, Oswald Iten who had been arrested and detained previously for photographing an independence demonstration. The police told Iten that such violence was ‘normal’ when a policeman is killed.
Iten later wrote:
What I saw was unspeakably shocking. About half a dozen policemen were swinging their clubs at bodies lying on the floor and, oddly enough, they did not cry out; at most soft groans issued from them. After a few long seconds a guard saw me looking and struck his club against the bars of the cell block door. I quickly went back to my usual spot, from where I could still see the clubs, staff and split bamboo whips at their work. Their ends were smeared with blood and blood sprayed the walls all the way up to the ceilings. Sometimes I saw the policemen hopping on the benches, continuing to strike blows from there or jumping back down on the bodies below.
Indonesia’s national human rights commission, Komnas HAM, conducted an independent investigation into the attack. Twenty-five suspects were identified by the commission but only two were ultimately ordered to face trial by the Attorney General’s Office. The Office gave no explanation why the remainder of suspects escaped prosecution.
The two accused, however, were not arrested, and not only were they allowed to remain in their jobs, they were actually promoted. The Attorney General’s Office obstructed investigations by the survivors’ legal team, and delayed the case well beyond the time limit stipulated by Indonesia’s Law 26/2000 on Human Rights Courts.
When the court handed down its verdict last week, the survivors and their families broke into hysterics. One woman climbed onto a chair and yelled in disbelief at how unfair the judges had been. In contrast, the group of Brimob soldiers who packed the courtroom cheered and started singing the Brimob anthem. Prominent human rights defender, Todung Mulya Lubis, who is based in Jakarta, says the verdict will only add to Papuans’ feelings of alienation from the Unitary Republic of Indonesia.
Inside the court, representatives of Peace Brigades International accompanied the survivors, their families and friends, many of whom had received threatening phone calls and text messages or had been intimidated by ‘persons unknown’ in the lead up to the trial. Indonesian human rights advocates say they have been told by insiders that the judges involved in the case had been pressured by the authorities to deliver a not guilty verdict, and to refuse compensation to the survivors and their families. Also witnessing the proceedings were representatives of the European Union and the New Zealand and Canadian governments. No one from the Australian embassy was present.
Brother Budi Hernawan from the Catholic Office of Justice and Peace in Jaypura says, ‘the Abepura verdict shows that human rights violations in West Papua are not taken seriously by the central government. The state is not even willing to protect the right to life for West Papuans.’
The verdict was handed down just weeks after the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Sydney University released a report on the human rights situation in West Papua entitled Genocide in West Papua? The role of the Indonesian Security Services Apparatus. The report, which took four years to compile, details a systematic policy of violating the rights of West Papuans, including the burning of entire villages, extrajudicial killings, rape, and torture at the hand of the Indonesian security forces. Both the Indonesian and Howard Governments questioned the veracity of the findings.
Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja spoke to the Genocide in West Papua? report in parliament, urging the Australian Government to ‘pursue a relationship with Indonesia that is based on being honest and open, on having a mutual respect for human rights and on recognising dignity and the importance of human life.’
Senator Stott Despoja also called on the Australian Government to ‘revisit our role in the internationally discredited 1969 Act of Free Choice’ under which Indonesia seized control of West Papua. Greens Senator Bob Brown then put forward a motion that ‘notes the release of the report and calls on the Australian Government to investigate the claims in the report and report back to the Senate.’ Senator Brown’s motion was opposed by Labor.
In recent years human rights violations in West Papua have steadily worsened. Jakarta’s military operations, unwillingness to fully implement Special Autonomy legislations for the province, moves to partition the province into two, and lack of political will to address the core causes of the conflict, have all made matters worse. Jakarta now plans to send military forces withdrawn from Aceh to West Papua, where a new military command will be established.
The increase in troop numbers shows the central government’s fear of the nonviolent movement that is challenging Jakarta’s legitimacy and whose grievances are beginning to capture the attention of the international community.
The brutality of the Abepura case illustrates the gravity of the dire human rights situation in West Papua. Last week’s verdict will only fuel West Papuan nationalism and strengthen West Papuans’ determination to be free from what is widely considered an illegal and illegitimate colonial occupation.
It’s not hard to understand why. And Jakarta only has itself to blame.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.