Indonesian separatist gets
life in prison for waving
flag in front of president

A court has sentenced the leader of a separatist group in eastern Indonesia to life in prison for waving the flag of a mostly Christian secessionist movement in front of the president last year.

At court official said at least 19 others were convicted of treason and sentenced to between 10 and 20 years over the flag-waving demonstration, which was nonviolent.

The incident was a major embarrassment to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as he presided over a government ceremony in the eastern province of Maluku, which was wracked by violence between Muslims and Christians between 1999 and 2002.

The harshness of the punishments shows Indonesia's extreme sensitivity to separatist movements in the sprawling archipelago and will likely trigger criticism by rights activists.

The group itself - a tiny outfit known by the Indonesian acronym RMS - has little support. It does not believe in violence, and analysts say it poses no threat to central government control of the region.

Court spokesman Amin Syafrudin said the leader of the separatist group, Johan Teterisa, was sentenced to life imprisonment Thursday in the provincial capital Ambon after being found guilty of treason.

State news agency Antara reported Teterisa cried when the sentence was handed down.

His lawyers were not immediately available for comment Friday.

Another 19 members of the group have been convicted on treason charges over the last two months, said Syafrudin on Friday. The trials have received little attention in the national media.

Indonesia is overwhelmingly Muslim, but Christians form the majority in parts of Maluku and other eastern regions.

The RMS first emerged in the 1950s soon after Indonesia won its independence from Dutch colonial rule. The group, which was mostly Christian but had some Muslim members, was defeated militarily and its leadership fled to the Netherlands, where it briefly had a government-in-exile.

It was largely forgotten until Maluku erupted in Muslim-Christian violence in 1999 that killed some 9,000 people. The Muslim side took to calling their Christian foes separatists, a charge that helped give their cause legitimacy among the country's mostly Muslim leadership and media.

An overwhelming majority of Christians in the province insist they do not want a separate state.

Indonesia, which has some 18,000 islands and scores of ethnic groups, is battling separatists in Papua province. In 2005, the government reached a deal with secessionists in Aceh province, ending a war that had killed 15,000 people. (*)

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