'Nonsense' life sentence
for separatist

The life sentence given to a traditional dance coordinator for waving a separatist flag in front of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last year sparked criticism Friday, with a rights activist calling it excessive.

Asmara Nababan, a former secretary-general of the National Commission on Human Rights, said the panel of judges at the Ambon District Court failed to consider that the actions of Johan Teterisa were non-violent.

"The judges should have deemed his action more as a political aspiration than a life-threatening act," Asmara said. "He only waved an RMS flag, and did not carry a weapon."

RMS is the South Maluku Republic, a largely Christian separatist group.

In addition to finding Johan guilty, the court over the past two months convicted 19 other members of the traditional dance group of treason, sentencing them to between 10 and 20 years in prison.

State news agency Antara reported Johan broke into tears when the sentence was handed down. The panel of judges said they refused to show leniency toward Johan, an elementary school teacher, as he was sentenced for a similar offense in 2003.

The judges said Johan had been found to be the leader of the RMS in Aboru village in Central Maluku, having joined the group in 2002.

The June 29, 2007, incident was a major embarrassment for Yudhoyono, who was presiding over a ceremony to mark National Family Day in the Maluku capital, where religious violence between 1999 and 2001 claimed thousands of lives.

Asmara said the government had overreacted to the incident.

"The life sentence is too much. The government should have been more open-minded in settling the case. We already have too many political prisoners," he said.

Antonius Sujata, a former deputy attorney general, slammed the sentence, saying a life sentence was uncalled for in an episode that did not endanger the lives of others.

"The treason charge and the life sentence were emotional, political and nonsense," Antonius said. "The man only waved a flag and did not try to harm the President."

No separatists brought to trial for taking up arms in the rebellious provinces of Aceh and Papua in the past have been sentenced so harshly. Many Aceh rebels were released following the peace agreement that put an end to the decades-long conflict in the province. In Papua, many armed rebels have avoided trial by handing over their arms to security authorities.

Life sentence is the maximum penalty for treason under the Criminal Code.

The South Maluku Republic has waged a low-key, relatively non-violent independence movement for years. Security authorities have dismissed the group as a threat to national unity.

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