Victor Mambor and Nazarudin Latif, Jayapura, Indonesia and Jakarta – Filep Karma, a prominent Papuan pro-independence activist and longtime former political prisoner of Indonesia, was found dead on a Jayapura beach Tuesday after apparently drowning during a diving trip, police said. He was 63.
Police and Filep's family said they had no reason to believe that his death resulted from foul play. Filep had been released from an Indonesian prison in 2015 after serving nearly 11 years for raising the Morning Star flag of the Papuan separatist movement.
"I followed the post-mortem process and it was determined that my father died from drowning while diving," Filep's daughter, Andrefina Karma, told reporters.
The activist's body was found early Tuesday at Base-G Beach in North Jayapura district.
Filep had made frequent diving trips to the area recently, his family and friends said. Last year he was found alive on Skouw Beach near the border with Papua New Guinea after a current swept him away during a dive.
Victor Makbon, the Jayapura city police chief, said Filep's body showed no signs of violence, but he would not comment on a potential cause of death. "We are deeply saddened by the passing of Mr. Filep Karma. Please don't speculate," Victor told BenarNews.
Papua, on the western side of New Guinea island, has been the scene of a low-level separatist insurgency since the mainly Melanesian region was incorporated into Indonesia in a United Nations-administered ballot in the late 1960s.
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua – like Indonesia, a former Dutch colony – and annexed the region.
Only about 1,000 people voted in the U.N.-sponsored referendum in 1969, called a sham by locals and activists. The U.N. accepted the vote, essentially endorsing Jakarta's rule.
Mourners line streets
On Tuesday, thousands of people filled the streets of Kotaraja in Jayapura to mourn for Filep as his body was transported back from the Bhayangkara Police Hospital.
"We have come to pay homage to the deceased and escort him to his home," Jayapura resident Domi Lani said.
Markus Haluk, executive director of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, said Filep's death was a big loss for the Papuan people.
"Filep Karma was one of those who persevered in the fight for the liberation of Papua. His life was dedicated to the nation and people of Papua," Haluk said. "He was even willing to live in prison for his fight for Papuan independence."
Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International in Indonesia, called for an investigation into the death "because many activists who have spoken out about Papua have become targets of violence.
"This is especially considering the deceased's work in defending the human rights of indigenous Papuans," he told BenarNews.
Taking a different view, Beka Ulung Hapsara, a member of the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), said Filep's family said he had died from drowning and their statement "should be respected."
Filep, a former civil servant and son of former Wamena Regent Andreas Karma, was sentenced to 15 years in prison after participating in the raising of the Morning Star flag on Dec. 1, 2004.
He was released in November 2015 after rejecting an offer of clemency from President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.
"If I accepted it, it would mean that I admit guilt. I had expected to be released in 2019 because I refused all sentence cuts," Filep told reporters at the time while attributing his release to international pressure on the government over treatment of political prisoners.
"They forced me out of prison because I didn't want to accept clemency," he said.
Filep was tortured and subjected to other degrading treatment while in prison, including being denied access to proper medical care, according to Amnesty International.
Before the flag incident, Filep led what started as a peaceful rally in Biak in 1998 to demand a referendum on self-determination, but it ended in violence when police used force to disband the protesters.
At least eight Papuans were killed, dozens were injured and three went missing, according to a 1999 investigation by Papuan human rights group Elsham.
"I heard stories that people were asked to board an Indonesian Navy ship. It was not clear where they were taken. Later there was news that mutilated bodies were thrown into the sea," Filep told local media in 2020.