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Indonesian activists' acquittal in defamation case hailed

UCA News - January 9, 2024

A Catholic official in Indonesia's Christian-majority Papua province has hailed the acquittal of two rights activists in a defamation case related to a controversial gold mining project.

In the verdict on Jan. 8, the East Jakarta District Court declared that Haris Azhar and Fatia Maulidiyanti were "not proven" guilty of the case filed by Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment.

The court also ordered the rights and dignity of the activists to be restored while dismissing the state prosecutor's demands for jail terms of up to four years.

Father Alexandro Rangga, executive director of the Franciscan's Secretariat for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in Papua said the verdict "reveals that there is still hope for the supremacy of law in Indonesia."

However, he said, this must go through various continuous advocacy efforts, starting from campaigns, monitoring cases, as well as strengthening support from all parties, especially civil society in Papua as the case is related to the results of research publications in Papua.

"My hope is that more and more activists will have the courage to voice Papuan issues at the national level openly and accountability as a counter-narrative effort so that government policies will pay more attention to Papuan characteristics and local wisdom and take sides with the Papuan people," he said.

He said that in the context of efforts to advocate for issues in Papua, data-based advocacy is needed so that criticism and input submitted to the government can be justified.

Azhar and Maulidiyanti were charged with defamation and spreading fake news by Panjaitan, a Protestant Christian, in March 2022 under the country's repressive information and electronics transactions law.

They came under fire after uploading a video of a talk show on Azhar's YouTube channel they took part in 2021 that discussed findings of a report on Panjaitan's alleged involvement in the mining business in Papua's Intan Jaya district.

Before entering politics, Panjaitan served as a military general in the strife-torn Papua region where the army is accused of human rights violations amid the ongoing separatist insurgency.

Azhar and Maulidiyanti are former coordinators of the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence which among other things investigated rights violations and disappearances in the restive province.

In the verdict, the judges stated, "There are no elements of insult or defamation" in the video.

"What was found in the video was a study, opinion analysis and assessment of the results of a study carried out by a civil society coalition," said the panel of judges.

The judge also said that in a democratic country, every public official should be ready to be criticized.

Maulidiyanti said that this victory was not the end of the long journey of democracy in Indonesia and hoped that society would continue to maintain a critical attitude, for the sake of justice for all of society.

She said criticizing the authorities was part of seeking justice.

CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, said in a statement released on Jan. 8 that the activists should have never been charged in the first place.

"The acquittal of Fatia and Haris, following two years of judicial harassment, is a victory for freedom of expression and for activists in Indonesia who have been speaking up against injustice. The charges brought against the two activists was a clear form of reprisal for their human rights work," said Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher for CIVICUS.

The prosecution against them points to another effort to silence critics of human rights violations in Papua. For years, Papuan human rights and pro-independence activists and protestors are often criminalized for treason. Some have been tortured, ill-treated, or killed with impunity, CIVICUS said.

"The Indonesian government must stop using restrictive legislation such as the Electronic Information and Transaction Law to target activists, journalists and critics. It must review and repeal all provisions inconsistent with international human rights laws and standards," said Benedict.

He further demanded that the government "must also end reprisals against human rights defenders and allow human rights defenders and civil society organizations to operate freely and safely."

The acquittals send a clear message to Indonesia's law enforcement authorities, said Amnesty International Indonesia Executive Director Usman Hamid, referring to recent incidents of intimidation against people for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

"Critics must not be silenced. No one should be jailed for holding a discussion on YouTube about mining interests or any other issue critical of the authorities," he said.

Hamid said, "The acquittal should now trigger the release of more activists, journalists, and anyone else detained solely for opposing or criticizing government policies or raising concerns about conflict of interests among state officials."

Panjaitan said he is disappointed with the verdict but respects the court's decision.

As the judges read out the verdict, a group of rights activists demonstrated outside demanding the release of Azhar and Maulidiyanti.

A former Dutch colony, Papua has witnessed violence since the 1960s after Indonesia annexed the territory and used military force to crush a pro-independence movement.

Despite being rich in mineral resources including gold reserves the easternmost region remains one of the poorest in Indonesia due to lack of development, rights groups say.

Source: https://www.ucanews.com/news/indonesian-activists-acquittal-in-defamation-case-hailed/10375