Despite political reform, Indonesia abuses persist

Associated Press | Nov. 16, 2011

PAPUA, Indonesia — Indonesia, hosting President Barack Obama and other world leaders this week, has earned praise for democratic reforms achieved since longtime dictator Suharto was ousted a decade ago. But a man serving 15 years in prison for raising a flag wants the dignitaries to know the nation still has a long way to go.

In remote corners of the archipelago, dozens of demonstrators have been killed in recent months, and anti-government activists are thrown in jail for peacefully expressing their views. There are least 100 political prisoners, most in Papua province and the Molucca islands, many of whom complain of being tortured or psychologically abused by guards.

“Indonesia says, ‘We’re brothers, we’re equal,’ But you see? It’s meaningless,” said Filep Karma, a prominent political prisoner with nine years left on his sentence. “Our democracy is a lie.”

The 52-year-old father of two spoke to The Associated Press late last month from a location he insisted remain secret, after being granted a brief release from prison to get medical attention.

Outside, convoys of troops rumbled down the road and soldiers stood on street corners with rifles hanging from their shoulders. Inside, others in the room nervously checked doors and windows.

Overall, the predominantly Muslim nation of 240 million has made great strides since Suharto’s day, with a vibrant free press, a much improved human rights record and direct elections of its leaders.

It’s seen by many as a potential model for Egypt and other Arab Spring countries.

For Obama, who arrives Thursday for the East Asia Summit, the country he once called home is also potentially a counterweight to China’s growing military and economic influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

To that end, Washington has launched an aggressive wooing campaign, ending restrictions last year on working with an Indonesian special forces unit accused of some of the worst atrocities during East Timor’s independence struggle in the 1990s.

The ban, hugely embarrassing to Jakarta, was the final obstacle to normalizing military ties.

Abuses continue, however, in areas including Papua, where the government has struggled to put down a low-level insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, most at the hands of the military, according to rights workers.

“It’s Indonesia’s dirty little secret that they still put people like Filep Karma behind bars,” said Elaine Pearson of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.

Mob violence against religious minorities is also on the rise.

The international community shares some of the blame, Pearson said, because of its eagerness to present the nation as a democratic success story.

Thirty-four people have been killed in Papua since July and five have been arrested and charged with treason, which carries a maximum sentence of life, according to police and rights workers.

Days before Karma’s interview, security forces broke up a pro-independence gathering in the nearby town of Abepura, opening fire on the crowd and beating participants with batons and rattan canes. Three people were killed and dozens injured.

Government spokesman Bambang Sulistyo said that while Papuans enjoy the same rights as all citizens, the aspirations of separatist-minded groups will not be tolerated.

To that end, the gathering in Abepura was illegal, he said.

Karma, found guilty of treason for raising a pro-independence flag in 2004, says he has endured severe beatings by prison guards, who regularly mock him for his Christian faith and spit out insults like “dog.”

Other inmates have complained of similar abuse.

“They treat us like animals,” said Yusak Pakage, who was arrested at the flag-raising rally in 2004 and released after accepting a conditional pardon last year.

Fellow inmate Ferdinand Pakage was blinded in the right eye in a brutal beating by guards.

Liberti Sitinjak, current chief at Abepura prison, denies inmates are beaten or otherwise abused.

There were signs this week the international community is starting to put pressure on Indonesia.

The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called Wednesday for Karma’s immediate release, according to Freedom Now, a U.S.-based group that works on behalf of prisoners of conscience.

On Monday, 50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent Obama a letter urging him bring up Papua with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during his visit.

And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Hawaii last week that Washington was keeping a watchful eye on the situation.

Papua is the most remote region in Indonesia and the last to be relinquished by its Dutch colonial masters a half century ago. It was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-sponsored ballot of tribal leaders that has widely been dismissed as a sham.

Activists are regularly given 10 years or more in jail for anti-government rallies, unfurling banners or raising pro-independence flags, while soldiers who commit abuses have received much less time, if any. Even those captured on video burning the genitals of one suspected separatist in Papua last year and running a sharp knife across the neck of another were sentenced to just a few months for “disobeying orders.”

The seeds of dissent were sown into Karma — who comes from an upper-class family of civil servants — in 1965 when Indonesian soldiers arrived at his home just after midnight and kicked in the door. He was 6 at the time.

“They were shouting, ‘Wake up! Wake up!’ as they overturned furniture, smashed everything in sight,” said Karma.

“It hurt, deep in my heart,” he said. “This is where it began for me. I started to believe if Papua didn’t get away from Indonesia, we’d all spend the rest of our lives suffering.”

Even so, he remained largely removed from the independence movement until 1998, when he became involved in nationwide protests that eventually helped sweep Suharto from power. It was only after taking part in a flag-raising ceremony in his hometown of Biak in July that year that it dawned on him that Papua might not benefit from the dramatic changes yet to come.

He was injured in both legs when Indonesian troops opened fire at a rally, and was thrown in jail for a year on charges of sedition.

After his second arrest, the court openly ridiculed his Christian faith and his 15-year sentence was three times what prosecutors had demanded.

Karma’s daughter, Audryne Karma, said the blood-drenched head of a dog was dropped off on the doorstep of his lawyers soon after, with a note attached that said, “Kill Karma.”

“We thought that the Indonesian authorities, wary of martyring my father, would grant him an early release,” she wrote in a letter that appeared in The Wall Street Journal. “Instead, they transformed a humble civil servant into an icon of political persecution.”

Karma, who suffers from chronic health problems, says he will accept nothing short of unconditional release.

“I also want an apology to the people of Papua,” he said, “because many civilians have been killed by Indonesian soldiers.”