Papuans face prison in Indonesia for raising a flag

Papua’s High Court has extended the prison sentences of 11 protesters who were appealing their conviction merely because they displayed a banned flag.

The 11 activists were arrested in March 2008 for hoisting the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence, and initially sentenced to 8 months of detention. Upon appeal, the Papuan High Court extended their sentences to three years or more.

Amnesty International called on Wednesday for their immediate and unconditional release. The organization urged the Indonesian government to withdraw the 2007 government regulation that bans the display of separatist flags.

The flags were raised during a series of peaceful public demonstrations protesting the 2007 government regulation.

Prominent activist Jack Wanggai was sentenced to three-and-a-half years and 10 others were given three-year sentences. The defendants plan to appeal the decision to Indonesia’s Supreme Court.

“Imprisoning protesters for three years just for raising a flag seems designed to make an example of these people in an effort to intimidate other Papuans activists,” said Donna Guest, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Programme. “This is a step back from the recent trend towards greater openness and respect for freedom of expression in Indonesia over the past few years.”

Papua, Indonesia’s eastern-most province, has witnessed a deteriorating human rights situation over the past few years. The indigenous population, ethnically distinct from other parts of Indonesia, has increasingly questioned the Indonesian government’s policies regarding Papua’s natural resources and the migration of non-Papuans into the area.

The Indonesian government maintains a heavy police and military presence, whose members have faced accusations of intimidating and threatening members of the local indigenous community who support greater autonomy or independence from Indonesia through peaceful means.