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Open letter calling for the release of the West Papuan political prisoners in Balikpapan

West Papua Action Aotearoa Media Release - June 17, 2020

The West Papua Action Aotearoa network and 109 signatories from churches, academia, community leadership and Pacific groups have sent an urgent open letter to Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters today calling for the release of the Balikpapan 7 who are a group of West Papuan political prisoners.

"These people were arrested for non violent participation in actions to uphold the value of Papuan lives last year and are being threatened with treason sentences of up to 17 years in prison. Basically they have been arrested because they are leaders for West Papuan freedom. They have also been transported away from their families in West Papua to prison Kalimantan in Indonesia," said network co spokesperson Catherine Delahunty.

"We are asking the Government to urgently raise the issue with the Indonesian Government. West Papuans are our neighbours who are experiencing state killings and imprisonment and their lives matter. There is a call from all over the world to stop racism against marginalised groups and that must include West Papuans who were protesting last year against being called " monkeys" by Indonesians. The threat of up to 17 years for non violent protest is a bizarre attack on human rights. Our Government must use its voice to protest against these human rights abuses. Otherwise they are choosing to say that West Papuan lives do not matter.".

Catherine Delahunty 021 2421967
Leilani Salesa – 027 743647

Open Letter

West Papua Action Aotearoa

12 June 2020

Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern
Prime Minister
Hon Winston Peters
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Parliament Buildings

Dear Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters,

We urge you to raise New Zealand's voice to help prevent a travesty of justice and honour against the indigenous people of West Papua who are courageously fighting a "Papuan lives matter" campaign.

The most urgent call is to back the global campaign for the immediate release of the 'Balikpapan Seven' who face the possibility of being put away for years because they stood up to racism. The seven are indigenous activists and students and they are being tried for their involvement in antiracism protests in Jayapura, West Papua, in August 2019. Unbelievably prosecutors are seeking between five and 17 years of prison, despite the fact that none were involved in any violence. They are on trial for 'treason' in a court in Kalimantan, thousands of kilometers from their homes and families. They were transferred to this distant jurisdiction for 'security reasons'.

The call for the release of the 'Balikpapan Seven' has the outspoken support of a large number of Papuan politicians, civic leaders, and religious clerics. Church leaders, student unions, and Indonesian and international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch have also criticized the government's harsh actions. The parallels with events in the United States are obvious and Indonesia should realize that they are now on notice for failing to uphold the rights of Papuan people to freedom from discrimination and freedom of expression.

On August 17 last year a West Papuan 'Black Lives Matter'/'Papuan Lives Matter' uprising was triggered by a racist attack undertaken by Indonesian militia and army officers on a West Papuan student dormitory in Surabaya. The violence against the students was documented in videos that showed some Indonesian soldiers repeatedly banging on gates of the dormitory while shouting words such as 'monkeys' and 'dogs' while hurling stones and firing teargas canisters. The military responsible for the violent siege on the Papuan students' dormitory in Surabaya last August have escaped sanction. Only three civilians who took part in the siege got light sentences. But dozens of those involved in the ensuing protests which swept across Indonesia and West Papua were arrested. Those seen as responsible for organising the protests were detained and charged with treason. A number of these leaders have now been released after serving months' long sentences, so it is confounding that the 'Balikpapan Seven' should be facing such extreme penalties.

The defendants are: Buchtar Tabuni, a leader of the pro-Papuan independence group United Liberation Movement for West Papua (prosecutors are seeking a 17-year prison term); Agus Kossay and Stevanus Itlay from the National Committee of West Papua (Komite Nasional Papua Barat) (15 years); Ferry Gombo, Cenderawasih University student union head, and Alexander Gobai, Jayapura University of Science and Technology (USTJ) student union head (10 years); and Irwanus Uropmabin and Hengki Hilapok, USTJ students (5 years), who were helping Gobai to rent a truck and sound system for the protest.

Buchtar Tabuni has been a leading activist for over a decade – this is his third time of imprisonment including a three year jail term for 'treason' following a peaceful independence gathering on December 1, 2008. Stevanus Itlay has also been jailed twice previously, the last time for organizing a prayer meeting.

Indonesia's response to last year's uprising was to crack down and to send in more more than 10,000 additional security personnel to West Papua. The internet was shut down – an action considered unlawful by Indonesia's State Administrative Court.

At least 61 lives, including police and migrants were lost during the uprising.

The litany of abuses of the Papuan people stretches back over more than half a century since Papuans were forced to accept Indonesian rule. Indonesia's own National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) notes that in 2019 there were as many as 154 complaints of violence on the part of Security forces, more than two times the figure in 2018.

Please call for the release of 'Balikpapan Seven' – an essential first step towards redress.

Yours sincerely,

  • Catherine Delahunty West Papua Action Aotearoa
  • Maire Leadbeater West Papua Action Aotearoa
  • Brian Turner (Revd) West Papua Action Aotearoa
  • Celeste Donovan West Papua Action Aotearoa
  • Leilani Esmae Sieni Salesa Oceania Interrupted
  • Dr Philip Temple ONZM, Dunedin. Author and commentator
  • Mons. Gerard Burns (Catholic Priest Wellington New Zealand)
  • Lesley Young (Yearly Meeting Clerk,Te H?hi T?hauwiri,Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)Yearly Meeting of Aotearoa New Zealand
  • Nik Naidu, Secretary, Then India Sanmarga Ikya (NZ) Trust
  • Golriz Ghahraman M.P.
  • Pauline Mckay, National Director, Christian World Service
  • Edwina Hughes (Coordinator, Peace Movement Aotearoa)
  • Dr. Heather Devere (National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies)
  • Camille Nakhid (AUT Pacific Media Centre)
  • Gretchen Druliner (Masters student at National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies)
  • Warren Brewer
  • Dr Philip Cass
  • Dr Briar Wood
  • Richard Manning
  • Luka Lim-Cowley
  • And 90 others

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