JAKARTA, 30 January 2012 (IRIN) - Human rights groups have urged Indonesian authorities to drop treason charges against five activists in the easternmost province of Papua.
The activists - Forkorus Yaboisembut, Edison Waromi, August Makbrowen Senay, Dominikus Sorabut and Selpius Bobii - went on trial on 30 January, their lawyer said.
They were arrested on 19 October after they read out a declaration of independence for Papua during the so-called Papuan People's Congress in Jayapura, the provincial capital.
Police and soldiers fired warning shots to break up the gathering after the declaration and arrested dozens of activists. Three people were found dead near the scene of the congress the following day, police and rights activists said.
"The Indonesian government should show its commitment to peaceful expression by dropping the charges against these five Papuan activists," Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said.
"It's appalling that a modern democratic nation like Indonesia continues to lock up people for organizing a demonstration and expressing controversial views," she said.
Poengky Indarti, executive director of the Indonesian human rights group Imparsial, echoed HRW.
"The action of the activists did not amount to treason," Indarti told IRIN in Jakarta.
"They did not take up arms. They were simply expressing their views in a peaceful way. So rather than prosecuting them, the government should sit together with them to talk about the grievances of the Papuan people."
Indarti said the activists were simply voicing Papuans' concerns about human rights violations committed by the military and the police and the exploitation of the region's natural resources.
"The government's heavy-handed approach is likely to worsen the situation and taint Indonesia's international reputation," she said.
One of the defendants' lawyers, Latifah Anum Siregar, said they could face a life sentence or 20 years in prison if found guilty.
"Our clients are not charged for organizing the congress, but for reading out the declaration of independence," Siregar remarked. "We believe that their action was within the boundary of free speech and as we can see, Papua has not seceded and remains part of Indonesia," she added.
Following the October crackdown, eight police officers, including the Jayapura police chief, Imam Setiawan, were given written warnings for committing a disciplinary infraction, but no other action was taken against police or military personnel.
According to HRW, at least 15 Papuans have been convicted of treason for peaceful political activities in recent years.
Remote, sparsely populated and rich in natural resources, Papua has experienced a low-level separatist insurgency since the 1960s.
According to aid agencies, despite its vast natural resources, the region remains one of the poorest and least developed in Indonesia, with some of the lowest health and education indicators nationwide.
In 2001, Papua was granted special autonomy status in an attempt to offset renewed calls for independence. After its original short-lived independence, the region was temporarily administered by the UN before being officially annexed by Indonesia in 1969.
Activists and experts say rights abuses and economic marginalization of the indigenous Papuans, who are ethnic Melanesian, are fuelling the conflict - one largely forgotten by the west.
In 1999, the government divided Papua into the provinces of Papua and West Papua.
About 60 other people throughout Indonesia, mostly activists from the Moluccas Islands, have also been imprisoned after being convicted of treason for flying separatist flags, according to HRW.