Papuan Independence Leader Claims Abuse

Papua's most famous independence leader Filep Karma, considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, was jailed for 15 years after raising the Morning Star independence flag at a political rally in 2004. In a recent rare interview he claimed he is suffering mental and physical abuse in prison.

Karma is one of 48 political prisoners currently detained in Papua, something he believes is undemocratic.

"My understanding is that Indonesia is a democracy and according to the law here, in order to hold a demonstration you don't need to have a license, but you need to inform the police of your activities three days before the event. I did that but they terrorized us in a nation that is meant to be democratic – a nation where freedom of speech is meant to be protected. So I want to know, is this nation controlled by terrorists?" asked Karma.

After it was annexed in 1969, Papua officially became part of Indonesia, but there have been calls for independence since and a low-level separatist conflict has been underway for decades. Foreign journalists are largely restricted from reporting in the province and the International Red Cross was ordered out of Papua last year after it visited political prisoners.In this interview, conducted without the permission of the authorities, Karma claims prison guards abuse him on a weekly basis.

"I have been punched, kicked and pulled but what hurts is the mental torture we are subjected to. An officer told me then that when I entered the prison I lost all my rights, including human rights. You only have the right to breathe, eat and follow orders. He even went as far as to say that my life was in his hands," said Karma.

Human Rights Watch recently released a report detailing torture and abuse of political prisoners in the country, including the case of Ferdinand Pakage who lost sight in one eye due to a beating by a guard.

The head of the Papuan branch of the Human Rights and Justice Ministry, Nasarudin Bunas, confirms the beating took place.

"Yes, it was very clear that Ferdinand Pakage was beaten by a guard. That's the truth. We are processing the case and the guard who did it is being investigated by the police. But yes, the guard who did it is still working in the jail and we are in the process of moving him, but we have to work slowly because we lack staff. We cannot control the prison guards all the time and I can't be there all the time," said Nasrudin.

He says the government is trying to change the culture of abuse in prisons.

"We still have a problem with Papuan guards who get drunk and come to work and beat up prisoners. That's a problem and we are working on that. Those who like to get drunk and beat prisoners and don't want to work in the new system will be fired," he said.

Nasarudin says his local office of the ministry will send a petition to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to have 32 political prisoners in Papua released. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international are also lobbying for their release.

Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, says the detention of political prisoners in Papua is contrary to the Indonesian Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of expression. While the government argues the prisoners are being held because they are threat to national security, Robertson says the recent report neither supports nor negates the independence struggle and focuses only on human rights.

"Nothing in this report either supports or negates the claims of these activities for political separation. What we are talking about is solely the peaceful expression of political aspiration which should not be criminalized," he said.

Filep Karma says he has been offered a pardon from the Indonesian government if he abandons his independence struggle, something he won't do.

"If I accepted that, it would mean that I am sorry and did something wrong. No way! I did nothing wrong. What I said was the truth and my right as a Papuan. We are not invading another island to create another nation. We are aspiring to our right over our land. We were born here and this is our land of our ancestors. We are a different race to rest of Indonesia. Western Javanese view Papuans as half animal. When I lived in Java, people would call me 'monkey.' That was very painful. What's the point of being part of a nation where we are not treated as human?" he said.

Papua is rich in natural resources and is the home of the world's largest gold mine controlled by the US Company Freeport McMoran, yet the province remains one of the less-developed parts of Indonesia.

Filep Karma refused to give details on the strength or size of the Papuan separatist movement, but an analyst from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says it is no match for the Indonesian security forces. Karma too, is pessimistic about the Papuan struggle.

"If there are no changes by 2020 I think ethnic Papuans will be extinct. The Indonesian government is slowly killing Papuans through poison, alcohol, killings, stealing our ancestral land and suppressing our economic rights in the way our Aboriginal Australian and American Indians brothers and sisters were crushed. Our land is rich in natural resources and that is what the government wants. We must rise up! We must shout loudly for our rights. We must fight for independence or be destroyed!" said Karma.

This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia's independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at