JAKARTA, Indonesia (UPDATED) — Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Saturday ordered the release of a group of political prisoners in Papua to “create a sense of peace” in a rare conciliatory gesture to the insurgency-hit eastern province.
Five men, convicted over a 2003 raid on an Indonesian military weapons arsenal, will walk free from Abepura prison, near Papua’s provincial capital of Jayapura, after being granted clemency by Jokowi.
The move took place while the president was on a trip to Papua, during which AFP was granted rare access to the heavily-militarized province that is largely shut off to foreign media.
Separatists in Papua have for decades fought a low-level insurgency against the central government, and dozens are in jail for committing treason for acts such as raising the separatist “Morning Star” flag and taking part in anti-government protests.
Jokowi shook hands with the five ethnic Melanesian prisoners at Abepura prison, presenting each with a letter confirming the remainder of their sentences was being waived.
“Today we are releasing these five detainees to stop the stigma of conflict in Papua,” he told reporters at the prison.
“We need to create a sense of peace in Papua. This is just the beginning.”
Change in approach
The release marks a change in approach from previous governments. During the 10-year rule of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, only one political prisoner in Papua was granted clemency, according to Human Rights Watch.
Jokowi, who took office in October, has pledged to improve livelihoods in Papua, which remains deeply poor and underdeveloped compared to other parts of Indonesia despite its abundant natural resources.
However activists said releasing a handful of prisoners was not enough, and accused Jokowi of seeking to burnish his image.
The president has faced a storm of international outrage since putting to death seven foreigners last week, with Australia withdrawing its ambassador over the execution of two of its citizens and the United Nations expressing deep regret.
Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the move was “more like image-making”.
“It’s a good step but it’s nothing new,” he said, calling on Widodo to go further by granting prisoners an amnesty.
Prisoners have to request clemency and admit guilt before it is granted, unlike with an amnesty. Some prisoners in Papua have repeatedly refused to seek clemency when invited to do so by the government.
There are still regular flare-ups of violence in Papua, where poorly-armed insurgents are fighting on behalf of the mostly ethnic Melanesian population.
Indonesian troops are regularly accused of abusing Papuan villagers in the name of anti-rebel operations, but Jakarta denies allegations of systematic human rights abuses.
Foreign journalists typically face a lengthy process to obtain permission to report in Papua and requests are often turned down.
Authorities take a hard line on those caught reporting illegally. Two French journalists were handed short jail terms last year after being arrested while making a documentary on the separatist movement without permission
Jakarta took control of Papua, which forms half of the island of New Guinea, in 1963 from former colonial power the Netherlands. —Rappler.com
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