Five Australians remain stranded at Mopah Airport in Merauke, West Papua, six months after they were first detained for illegally landing their light plane in the Indonesian province.
William Scott-Bloxam, 62, his wife Vera, 54, and their friends Karen Burke, 51, Hubert Hofer, 57, and Keith Mortimer, 60, all residents of Horn Island in Queensland, made the one-hour journey to West Papua in September last year, with the mistaken belief that they could obtain visas on arrival. The five friends, all in the tourism industry, planned to stay for the weekend, and perhaps discover some new business opportunities.
Upon landing, however, they were arrested and accused of being spies, a charge that was soon dismissed. On January 15, after spending four months confined to a community detention facility, the "Merauke Five" were convicted of visa violations and sentenced to jail: two years for each passenger and three years for pilot Scott-Bloxam, who received an extra year for landing without flight approval or security clearance.
The sentence was unusually heavy-handed. Although visa violations can attract jail terms in Indonesia, it’s much more common for offenders to be deported immediately. On 29 January, writing for newmatilda.com, Torres News editor Mark Bousen accused the Indonesian Government of using the Merauke Five as a "tit-for-tat" for the asylum granted to the 43 West Papuans who fled to Australia in 2006. Other commentators have blamed Indonesia’s paranoid approach to West Papua, which is home to a separatist movement and hosts the highest concentration of military troops of any Indonesian province.
After being sentenced, the five Australians were put in jail, where they were confined to cramped cells 23 hours a day and granted just one hour outdoors. They were released on "humanitarian grounds" on 2 March while their lawyers prepared an appeal, but were still banned from leaving Merauke. Then, last week, Jayapura’s High Court overturned the convictions, on the proviso that they leave immediately in the plane they arrived in. They travelled immediately to the airport in Merauke, where their plane had been impounded since September.
When they arrived, however, they found their plane surrounded by Indonesian security, who had confiscated it on behalf of the prosecutors, now lodging an appeal to overturn the High Court ruling. The plane, they say, is required for evidence. And as the court ruling stipulates they must leave in their own plane, the Merauke Five are now trapped at Mopah Airport — too afraid to leave in case they are charged again for not having visas.
Defence lawyer Mohammad Rifan told AAP last week that under Indonesian law, the prosecutors are not permitted to appeal against a High Court decision. "Under the law of the criminal code, article 244, if the court orders the release as soon as possible, right now, you cannot appeal to the Supreme Court," he said. "If this happened for an Indonesian national, they would be free straight away. Why not for an Australian national?"
But an Indonesian law expert here in Australia said that while it’s true the country doesn’t allow appeal of absolute acquittals, they do allow it in other cases — such as, for example, if someone is acquitted because they were found to be under duress. "The question is whether [the Merauke Five’s]is an absolute acquittal for the purposes of Indonesian law", said Director of the Asian Law Centre at Melbourne University, Professor Tim Lindsey. "That will be a first issue that will be raised when the issue comes back before the courts."
Lindsey noted, however, that Indonesian courts have been "quite inconsistent in how they interpret [article 244]", and have "tended to read it in a way that will allow the appeal to go ahead". He also said that in Australia, it is unusual for a prosecutor to appeal.
According to a friend of the Five, Bob Slyney, who is now with them in Merauke, the appeal is now being processed. Speaking from the airport he told newmatilda.com that the Five have no idea when they will be free to leave. "We have no news, just that the appeal is going through. The Supreme Court could take anywhere from three months to two years."
On Tuesday night, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, indicated on ABC TV’s Lateline that at this point he would not put pressure on the Indonesian Government to release the Five. "We have to go through and respect the Indonesian legal processes, and currently they are subject to an appeal to the Indonesian Supreme Court," he said. "Their status now is what is described as ‘city detention’. So they effectively have what is described as a licence to the city, but we are giving them consular assistance."
That may be, but according to Keith Mortimer, they are too afraid to leave the airport. "We’ve been shafted too many times. We’re not going anywhere until we get everything in writing," he told us, speaking from the departure lounge at Mopah Airport late last week. "It’s been a roller coaster — we’ve had the highs of highs and the lows of lows. But the conditions are much, much better than at the jail, and the consular officials support us. It’s best for our safety." The five Australians are now being accommodated in temporary housing in the airport compound.
Mortimer, who praised airport staff for being "supportive and understanding", wished to thank their network of friends and family. "They have lobbied on our behalf, to their local members, the Minister, and also the shadow cabinet," he said. "All our friends in Indonesia, who have carried us, fetched us, done everything; without people like that we’d be nowhere. All the Indonesian people; the officials we’ve dealt with on the ground have been kind and courteous. But their hands are tied."
Mortimer said the Five planned to stay at the airport "indefinitely", and stressed that the legal team would not be able to solve the problem unaided.
"At this point I think it’s got to be legal as well as political," he said. "Keep us in the public eye, keep fighting for us," he said. "We don’t have — we don’t know — our future."
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