Trial 'likely' for French journalists held in Papua

JAYAPURA, Indonesia - Two French journalists arrested in Papua while reporting on the separatist movement in the region are likely to go on trial, their lawyer said Tuesday, September 2, amid repeated international calls for the pair to be released. 

Thomas Dandois, 40, and Valentine Bourrat, 29, were detained on August 6 while making a documentary for Franco-German television channel Arte in the restive eastern region.

On August 11, they were charged with violating immigration laws as they had tourist, not journalist, visas. Police said previously they could be jailed for up to 5 years if found guilty.

Indonesia is deeply sensitive about journalists covering Papua, where a low-level insurgency against the central government has simmered for decades, and rarely grants visas for foreigners to report independently in the region.

Foreign reporters detained for illegal reporting in Papua have in the past been swiftly deported. However Aristo Pangaribuan, the lawyer for the French journalists, said Tuesday that a trial was looking likely.

"There is a huge possibility that both of them will go into trial," he told AFP in an email.

'Strong evidence'

Gardu Ditiro Tampubolon, the immigration chief in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, said there was "strong evidence" against the pair.

"We are certain they have committed an immigration violation," said Tampubolon, whose department is investigating the journalists.

The pair are being held at an immigration facility in Jayapura. A request to place them under city arrest was rejected, state news agency Antara reported on Monday, September 1. 

It was not clear when a trial might start but Tampubolon said that investigators would likely submit in two weeks a case file to prosecutors, who will have the final decision on whether the case proceeds to court. Tampubolon told Antara the case file was now 50% complete. 

After the file is submitted, it would still take some time before a trial begins. Under the Indonesian legal system, suspects are often detained without charge for lengthy periods while authorities complete investigations. Suspects are only formally charged in court at the start of a trial.

Tampubolon said the pair had admitted to breaking visa rules.

"They told us they had no idea there was such a regulation in the first place," he said. "But the main point is, they have admitted to their wrongdoing and have been very cooperative and respectful during the investigation process."

Dandois was detained at a hotel in the city of Wamena with members of separatist group the Free Papua Movement (OPM), and Bourrat was detained shortly afterwards. The OPM has been at the forefront of the fight against the central government in the resource-rich but poor, ethnically Melanesian region.

Calls to free journalists

Local and international journalists associations, including the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the French Union of Journalists (SNJ, SNJ-CGT and CFDT-Journalists) and Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), have been calling for the immediate release of the pair.  

“This case highlights the urgent need for reform in Indonesia. Blocking tactics such as these continues to drive misinformation and further destablize the region," IFJ Asia-Pacific Acting Director Jane Worthington said in a statement on August 25

"We hope that incoming President Joko Widodo follows through on his statement to open Papua to foreign media and call on current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to order the immediate release of Dandois and Bourrat.”

The incoming president, better known as Jokowi, said during the presidential campaign that he would open access to Papua for foreign journalists and international organizations if elected president.

“Why not? It’s safe here in Papua. There’s nothing to hide,” Jokowi was quoted as saying during a visit to Jayapura. – with a report from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com