Konradus Epa, Jakarta – Police in Indonesia's East Kalimantan province have charged a Catholic priest with a public order offense in what he says is a move to silence him.
Divine Word Father Heri Sitohango of St. Paul Parish in Long Bentuq in Samarinda Archdiocese was questioned by Kutai Timur district police for 10 hours on March 1 before being charged for his alleged involvement in a protest by an indigenous group against a palm oil company. He was later released on bail.
He faces a maximum seven-year prison sentence if found guilty.
Members of the Dayak community in the district began blockading a plantation run by a company called Subur Abadi Wana Agung on Feb. 1. The blockade was broken up by police 10 days later.
Local people claim the company grabbed about 4,000 hectares of their land and have demanded more than US$1 million in compensation.
The priest said the charge was aimed at silencing him and that although he backed the local people, he was only at the protest site to ensure that the demonstration was peaceful. Police said he was helping incite disorder.
"As a religious leader, I have a moral obligation to help and defend people or groups facing injustice," Father Sitohang told UCA News. "As a priest, I am concerned and my conscience encourages me to help the oppressed, in spite of the law."
Many people who hold protests in the region are charged with public order offenses.
Divine Word Brother Julius Sudir, chairman of Samarinda Archdiocese's Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission, said it was fully behind the priest.
"The priest didn't violate any law. The police are just trying to gag him and protest leaders," he told UCA News.
Three other protesters were arrested and charged along with Father Sitohango before being released on March 1.