GUEST BLOG: Maire Leadbeater – Political prisoners and Covid May 19


For millions around the world COVID 19 is one more terrible threat to an existence already  precarious because of poverty and conflict.  Others are at high risk because they are in detention at the behest of repressive governments.   UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres  has called for global solidarity in the fight against the virus and for an immediate global ceasefire.   His colleague Michelle Bachelet the Human Rights Commissioner has urged all governments to release political prisoners and those detained for critical dissenting views.

UN member states, such as New Zealand need to do their bit to support the global body. New Zealand has a big advantage here if only it would use it. 

We have earned a lot of respect in the last couple of years.  First because of the way our Prime Minister Ardern   faced up to the Christchurch Mosque killings, supporting and caring for the victims and ensuring prompt changes to our gun laws.  Right now our handling of the COVID 19 crisis is seen to have been up among the best.   It has been a ‘lives first – economy second’ approach and it has worked.  Jacinda Ardern’s leadership was seen to be firm but evidence-based and transparent. 

So what could we do with this earned capital?   For one thing we could look close to home and speak out for the people of Indonesian-controlled West Papua, most urgently for its political prisoners. Indonesia released over 30,000 prisoners in the wake of the COVID crisis;  prisoners who were close to serving their time or detained for less serious crimes.  However when it came to political prisoners, including  those detained for taking part in anti-racism demonstrations,  it was nothing doing.

To put this in context,  when  Covid struck West Papua the people were dealing with the  aftermath of  a major  uprising that began last August. The protests were triggered by a prolonged racist attack on  Papuan students studying  in  Surabaya, East Java.   The students were imprisoned in their dormitory overnight while racist mobs chanted ‘get rid of the Papuans’ and ‘monkeys, get out’.  Then armed security police threw in tear gas and arrested the students.

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Then  it was as if the damn had burst as Papuans took to the streets in protest,  not only across West Papua,  but also in Jakarta and  several other Indonesian cities.  Indonesian rule of West Papua has been bitterly contested ever since the territory was taken over in 1963, so it is not surprising that that the calls for independence were amplified.  The banned national flag the ‘Morning Star’ was everywhere. 

Indonesia does not tolerate any kind of dissent that challenges its right to rule, so the protests led to an inundation into the territory of thousands of additional troops.    Some protests turned violent, and some  59 people, both Papuan and migrant, lost their lives.  An internet block was imposed and maintained in some areas for three weeks or more.  Outside journalists were already banned, but ingenious West Papuans managed to get some video footage out to the world.  We could see images from the humiliating arrests where Papuan were forced to lie face down on open ground .

Veronica Koman is an Indonesian human rights lawyer, currently forced to live in exile because of her committed advocacy for the West Papuan rights. Veronica teamed up with a fellow international human rights lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, and human rights group TAPOL to take a case to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to seek their support for the release of 63 political prisoners who posed no threat to society whatsoever because  all have  been involved in peaceful protest actions.   All of them are in grave danger of contracting COVID 19 in Indonesia’s  crowded and unsanitary prisons.  The great majority (57) were arrested during the 2019 uprising and the charges against them related to their support for self-determination or to displaying the banned flag. These peaceful activities are protected under international law.

For example in Manokwari  a young woman activist, Sayang Mandabayang,  is on trial on  treason charges.   She was apprehended at the local airport last September  and discovered to have some 1,500 miniature West Papuan flags in her bag ‘made of paper and stick’.  She is also said to have made a speech at an anti-racism rally. A photo of this young woman nursing her baby behind bars   went viral.    

The’ Jakarta Six’ were convicted on treason charges on 24 April and were sentenced to between eight and nine months in prison. Their ‘crime’?  They took part in a rally on August 28, 2019, outside the State Palace in Jakarta, during which they unfurled the  West Papuan Morning Star flag. One of them is Surya Anta Ginteng,  spokesperson for the Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua,  the first non-Papuan Indonesian to be charged with treason in relation to the West Papuan self-determination movement. One has already been released, but there is great concern for the others  especially for   Ariana Elopere, the one woman in the group.  She is detained at Pondok Bambu Detention Center where 24 prisoners have tested positive for Covid 19.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters seems set against any humanitarian advocacy.   The master of the sidestep, he  writes to West Papua Action Auckland  that ‘all States should consider the guidance’ of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.    However,  in the time of Covid,  we should remember that the United Nations relies on the strength of all its member nations and  the saying   ‘we are all in this together’  means we should be speaking out for the powerless and vulnerable.


Maire Leadbeater is a human rights advocate and expert on West Papua.


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