Documenting West Papua’s Political Prisoners

West Papuan civil society groups have launched the website Papuans Behind Bars to document the cases of political prisoners in West Papua. At the end of April 2013 there were at least 40 political prisoners in Papuan jails. In 2012 there were at least 210 documented political arrests in West Papua.

West Papua is part of Indonesia although many Papuans have been fighting for independence in the past 50 years.

The Indonesian government is denying that there are political prisoners in West Papua and insists that activists are being arrested because they violate criminal laws.

papuansInitiated by the Civil Society Coalition to Uphold Law and Human Rights in Papua, the online project Papuans Behind Bars seeks to raise public awareness about the human rights situation in West Papua:

This site aims to raise awareness about Papuan political prisoners so that nobody is forgotten. Many of the prisoners have suffered arbitrary arrest, violence, abuse, torture, unfair trials, intimidation and neglect

It is a grassroots initiative and represents a broad collaboration between lawyers, human rights groups, adat groups, activists, journalists and individuals in West Papua, as well as Jakarta-based NGOs and international solidarity groups.

West Papua is one of the resource-rich provinces of Indonesia although it has a high poverty rate:

Despite being one of Indonesia’s most resource-rich territories and host to its largest taxpayer, the mining company, Freeport, West Papua is one of the poorest regions in terms of poverty levels and human development indicators with serious concerns over inadequate healthcare, infant and maternal mortality, HIV/Aids and low levels of educational attainment.

Papuan political prisoners. Photo from Free West Papua Campaign.

Papuan political prisoners. Photo from Free West Papua Campaign.

In recent years, human rights groups have exposed the “violent and repressive practices” of the military and police in suppressing the independence movement:

Violent and repressive practices of the military and police forces include: intimidation; terror tactics; arbitrary arrests and detentions; interrogations conducted without the presence of lawyers and access denied to visiting family members; torture, ill-treatment and denial of healthcare during detention; mysterious shootings; forced disappearances; and extra-judicial executions. Human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

Papua land of peace writes about the root of the conflict in the region:

From the outset, the majority of Papuans opposed Indonesian rule and they resented the way they had been denied their right to govern themselves. In response to this opposition – both from armed groups and the general population – the Indonesian government resorted to violence and oppression.

This is the background to the colonisation by Indonesians that threatens the existence of indigenous Papuans – and the root of the conflict that continues today.

The website Papuans Behind Bars is a valuable resource to get more information about West Papua’s current and former political prisoners. Many Papuans in the database were arrested because they raised the banned Morning Star flag. Others were charged for treason because they participated in an anti-government rally.

Many political prisoners listed on this site have been detained for activities such as demonstrating or criticising the government, being politically active, or being affiliated to groups which are critical of or challenging to the government. Sometimes individuals who are not politically active at all are detained because they were present at a political event or were accompanying a politically active person.

A postcard showing the banned flag of West Papua

A postcard showing the banned flag of West Papua

Websites like Papuans Behind Bars and Free West Papua Campaign provide useful information about West Papua since mainstream media reporters face numerous challenges and restrictions in covering the situation in the area:

The flow of information in West Papua is itself politicised. Local and national journalists have faced threats, intimidation, beatings and sometimes execution when reporting from West Papua. Access for foreign journalists and human rights NGOs is severely restricted, and the International Committee of the Red Cross were thrown out of West Papua in 2009, bringing an end to independent monitoring of prison conditions.

The website suggests various ways to support the political prisoners of West Papua. A concrete example is to write to the prisoners:

This is a fantastic way to make sure political prisoners know that they are not alone. See the Current Prisoners list for people to write to. You can send letters directly to the prison addresses, or contact Papuans Behind Bars for details of how to send letter to local human rights lawyers who can deliver them by hand and make sure they arrive.


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