Jayapura – Indonesia's public Khairun University on Ternate Island should reinstate four students who were expelled after taking part in a peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said today.
A civil lawsuit brought by the four students, challenging their dismissal after the December 2019 protests, is underway in Ambon. On July 13, 2020, the Ternate police charged one of the four, Arbi M. Nur, with "treason" and "public provocation."
The Indonesian government should investigate the matter, as well as the alleged excessive use of force by police against students.
"Khairun University should support academic freedom and free expression, not expel students peacefully expressing their views," said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Khairun University should let the students return to their studies this semester and ensure a university environment that promotes free expression."
On December 2, 2019, the four student activists – Fahrul Abdullah W. Bone, Fahyudi Kabir, and Ikra S. Alkatiri, in addition to Nur – participated in a protest with about 50 students over human rights abuses in Indonesia's easternmost provinces, Papua and West Papua. The students said that the Indonesian government should release Papuan political prisoners and grant Papuans self-determination.
The police immediately came to the protest site, outside the Muhammadiyah University campus in Ternate, and dispersed the students, arresting 10, including the four activists from Khairun University and Asri Abukhair, a Muhammadiyah University student.
Ternate is the biggest city in North Maluku province, a neighboring archipelago to West Papua province. Many residents from the North Maluku province travel and stay in West Papua and Papua provinces. Papuan students also often study in Ternate.
An amateur video showed the police forcibly dispersing the protest, with some officers beating the students. The police had questioned the arrested students aggressively, threatening and using violence at the Ternate police station, the students and media reports said.
Arbi Nur told Human Rights Watch that the police officers beat them on their backs, their heads, and legs. The students were released on December 3, after 27 hours in custody.
On December 12, Husen Alting, the rector of the Khairun University, signed a decree to dismiss the four students, stating that they had "tarnished the good name of the university, breached the ethics of being a student, and threatened national security." There was no investigation or hearing at which the students could present their version of events.
In a media interview on December 26, Syawal Abdulajit, a deputy to Alting, accused the four students of "siding with" the armed group, the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM), without providing any evidence. Abdulajit mentioned Nur by name, saying that the university had reported his case to the National Police and the Education Ministry.
A dean at the private Muhammadiyah University warned Abukhair that he could face expulsion if he took part in such protests, but no further action was apparently taken.
The four students did not officially receive the dismissal letters until March. They filed a lawsuit challenging their dismissal against the university rector on April 6 at the administrative court in Ambon, the capital of the Maluku Islands province.
Because North Maluku province does not have an administrative court, any citizen who wants to bring a lawsuit against any government office in North Maluku needs to file it in Ambon, 600 kilometers south of Ternate. Ambon incurs the costs for transportation and accommodation. The students received pro bono legal assistance from the Ansor Legal Aid Institute (LBH Ansor) in Ambon. The students rented a house in Ambon to monitor the civil court case.
Nur faces up to 20 years in prison on the treason charge and 6 years for the public provocation charge. He has not been arrested because he is in Ambon.
Indonesian authorities should drop the charges against Nur, which violate the right to freedom of expression. They should also drop the charges against peaceful Papuan and Maluku activists now detained in several cities including Ambon, Fakfak, Wamena, Sorong, and Jayapura.
"The Ternate police should drop the charges against Arbi Nur," Harsono said. "He did nothing wrong in peacefully protesting about political prisoners or self-determination in Papua."