An Indonesian court issued on Wednesday guilty verdicts against the first three West Papuan defendants accused of treason, in a case that has drawn concern about deteriorating political freedoms in the world's third-largest democracy.
Buchtar Tabuni, one of the leaders of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, was found guilty of treason and sentenced to 11 months in prison – significantly lower than the 17 years that prosecutors had asked.
Following his sentencing, Tabuni, who was previously imprisoned for three years from 2008 to 2011, told the court, "in my conscience, I am innocent."
Ferry Gombo and Irwanus Uropmabin, both university students, were also found guilty of the same charge and sentenced to 10 months in prison. Prosecutors had earlier demanded 10 years for Gombo, student union president at the University of Cenderawasih in West Papua, and five years for Uropmabin, a student activist at a university in Jayapura.
Other defendants received between 10 to 11 months in jail, after being convincted of similar charge.
The seven men were charged after they joined anti-racism protests that swept across Indonesia's easternmost provinces last August.
In a statement posted on social media, Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman said, that "despite the leniency, the verdicts still reflect racism under Indonesian justice system."
"No matter what happens, West Papuans *must* be found guilty by Indonesian courts, especially in treason and incitement cases," Koman, who is living in exile, said.
The verdict and sentences were delivered by the judges online through the video app, Zoom.
The demonstrations in Papua and West Papua were sparked by alleged racist attacks on several Papuan students on the island of Java, including being called "monkeys".
They defendants were arrested in West Papua's provincial capital Jayapura last year and moved to Balikpapan on Indonesian Borneo for security reasons.
Many Indonesians have criticised the country's Attorney General for prosecuting the defendants, also known as the "Balikpapan Seven".
More than 150 Papuan politicians, civic and religious leaders, including members of parliament and the senate, have signed a petition asking President Joko Widodo to drop the charges against them.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also urged the government to release the accused individuals.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Andreas Harsono, the group's representative in Indonesia, said that he was "afraid" the judge would convict the defendants and sentence them to jail.
"It may be not as extreme as the prosecutors have demanded, but still there are going to be prison sentences, because it is very common. Those treason articles have been used against Papuans for more than five decades in Indonesia."
Videos posted on social media on Wednesday showed protesters in Jayapura and Sorong in West Papua demanding for the release of the defendants.'Papuan Lives Matter'
The resource-rich provinces of Papua and West Papua came under Indonesian rule after a controversial 1969 referendum sanctioned by the United Nations – a process that was viewed as rigged by many native Papuans.
A low-level separatist rebellion has simmered ever since in the former Dutch colony – which shares New Guinea island with the independent nation of Papua New Guinea.
The majority of Papuans are Christian and ethnic Melanesian with few cultural ties to the rest of Muslim-majority Indonesia.
The tensions spilled over in August 2019, with several areas in West Papua erupting into fiery protests that left several dead, prompting the government of President Joko Widodo to deploy thousands of military troops to the area. The final death toll in the months-long unrest remains unknown.
At the height of the protests, thousands of residents were forced to flee the region, the poorest in the archipelago.
During the protests, many demonstrators were seen flying the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence, which is banned in Indonesia.
Independence figure Filep Karma was convicted of treason after raising the flag publicly and spent 11 years in jail before his release in 2015.
The Balikpapan trial has drawn unusual levels of support in Indonesia, where it has coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.
That has inspired a local adaptation – Papuan Lives Matter – which Indonesians have used on social media and in street demonstrations calling for the Papuans' release.
The global movement has also sparked online forums about perceived racism and discrimination in Indonesia, events that activists say have been subject to obstruction and intimidation.
"Indonesian police have created a revolving door by arresting Papuan activists like Buchtar Tabuni for peaceful protests that needs to stop," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
"Indonesian authorities should recognise that given the global attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, sending peaceful activists to prison will only bring more international attention to human rights concerns in Papua.
– Al Jazeera and news agencies