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Jakarta Post

'Political prisoners' turn to UN amid COVID-19 threat

  • Dian Septiari
    Dian Septiari

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, April 16, 2020   /   05:54 pm
'Political prisoners' turn to UN amid COVID-19 threat Prison officials spray disinfectant on inmates at the Tanjung Gusta penitentiary in Medan, North Sumatra, on March 23. The measure was taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the overcrowded prison. (JP/Apriadi Gunawan)

With their plight largely ignored by the public, 63 Indonesians detained on treason charges have turned to the United Nations for help, hoping they could be saved from the threat posed by the COVID-19 disease in the country’s overcrowded prisons.

The prisoners made joint appeals to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and three UN special rapporteurs on Wednesday, helped along by Australian and Indonesian lawyers Jennifer Robinson and Veronica Koman.

The human rights lawyers argued that the 56 indigenous Papuans, five indigenous Moluccans, one native Batak and one Polish national were arbitrarily and unlawfully detained in violation of the country’s international obligations.

“These urgent appeals have been made given the imminent threat to the prisoners’ lives from being detained in overcrowded prisons amid the COVID-19 pandemic [...] Their detention is now not only unlawful, but life-threatening. All 63 prisoners should be immediately and unconditionally released,” Robinson said in a statement on Thursday.

The appeal was made following the government’s plan to grant early release or parole to 50,000 eligible prisoners and juvenile inmates as a means of preventing the spread of the infectious disease in correctional facilities.

Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly previously said that those eligible for release include 15,442 drug convicts who have already served five to 10 years, 300 graft inmates aged 60 years and above, 1,457 special crimes convicts with chronic diseases and 53 foreign prisoners who have served at least two-thirds of their sentences.

It remains unclear whether the 63 prisoners in question are eligible for early release, but one ministry official said on Thursday that only those who fulfilled the requirements set out in Law and Human Rights Ministery Regulation No. 10/2020 would be considered.

The regulation stipulates that convicts are eligible for early release unless they have committed one of several types of crimes, including crimes against national security.

Most of the petitioning prisoners were arrested for their involvement in a series of protests against racial abuse last year, which stoked tensions between Papuan rebels and the government.

The country’s easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua have long been dealing with a disorganized separatist movement, which the Indonesian government routinely blames as being the actor behind various cases of violent unrest in the restive region.

Indonesia’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Switzerland, Hasan Kleib, said he had not received any information about the appeals the lawyers claimed to have submitted. 

“We have not seen the copy of the letters. We are trying to find out and ask the relevant parties at the UN Human Rights Council directly,” Hasan told The Jakarta Post in a short message on Thursday.

Indonesia was elected to the Human Rights Council in October last year. The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is mandated by the council to investigate alleged cases of arbitrary detention, but only with the consent of the states concerned.

On April 1, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged countries to reduce the population of overcrowded prisons to avoid an explosive spread of the SARS-Cov-2 virus – which causes COVID-19 – in closed and choked settings.

Indonesia currently houses 268,919 inmates in 524 prisons, roughly double its maximum capacity, according to Law and Human Rights Ministry data from February.

Bachelet urged states to “release all those detained without a lawful basis, including those held in violation of human rights obligations”. Her spokesman, Rupert Colville, later stressed that nations should also release “political prisoners and those detained for critical, dissenting views”.

All 63 political prisoners in question have been charged with treason under Article 106 and/or Article 110 of Indonesia’s Criminal Code, which can carry a sentence of up to 20 years. Seven of them have been convicted while the others are still on trial.

“The activities for which they have been detained range from simply carrying or displaying the West Papuan or Moluccan national [separatist] flags, to participation in peaceful protests and being members of political organizations that support self-determination: all internationally protected activities,” said the human rights lawyers who organized the appeal.

According Article 6, Paragraph 4 of Government Regulation No. 77/2007, the design of a regional logo or banner must not have any resemblance to that of a banned organization or separatist movement.

Veronika was previously involved in an attempt to hand over letters to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo during his visit to Australia in February. The letters reportedly included details of 57 Papuan political prisoners as well as 243 civilians who have died in Nduga, Papua, since December 2018.

The document was dismissed by Coordinating Legal, Political and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD.

“So far, we have not received any response, except for the minister saying that the data was ‘probably just trash’. We urge the UN and the Indonesian government to take this matter very seriously now that lives are at stake,” Veronica said.

The European Parliament has also called for the Polish man’s transfer back to his home country.

Papua has restricted entry to the province by sea and air to stem the spread of COVID-19. As of Thursday, Papua has confirmed 80 cases and six fatalities, while West Papua has recorded five infections and one death.

The country's official tally is currently at 5,516 confirmed cases with 469 deaths.