Victor Mambor and Dandy Koswaraputra, Jayapura, Indonesia and Jakarta – The Indonesian military said on Wednesday that a tribunal sentenced an army major to life in prison for his involvement in the murder of four Papuan civilians, whose mutilated bodies were found in August in the restive region.
Human rights activists and victims' relatives welcomed the conviction of Maj. Helmanto Fransiskus Dakhi before the military tribunal in Surabaya as progress in holding members of security forces accountable for abuses committed in Papua.
"The defendant ... was found guilty of premeditated murder," Herman Taryaman, spokesman for the Indonesian military command in Papua, told journalists. The tribunal also dismissed Helmanto from the military, he said.
Four other soldiers charged in connection with the killings are being tried by a tribunal in Papua province's capital, Jayapura. A sixth military suspect – a captain – died in December after falling ill, Herman said.
Four civilians are also facing trial in a civilian court in the case, police said.
The four victims were beheaded and their legs cut off before their bodies were placed in sacks and tossed into a river in Mimika Baru, a district in Mimika regency.
Activists had said the violence degraded the dignity of indigenous Papuans amid allegations of ongoing rights abuses by government security forces in Papua.
The largely underdeveloped and impoverished region at the far-eastern end of Indonesia is where a separatist insurgency has simmered for decades. Both the Indonesian security forces and rebels have been accused of committing atrocities against civilians.
Helmanto is the third Indonesian Armed Forces member to be sentenced to life by a military court in a murder case since June.
In September, police said that the killings were linked to an illegal arms purchase and that the motive was "economic." The suspects were posing as gun runners and the victims came to them with 250 million rupiah (U.S. $16,500) in cash to purchase the weapons, officials had said.
However, rights advocacy group KontraS said that the police's allegation that the victims tried to buy firearms was not backed by evidence because a homemade rifle, which was cited as evidence, was missing.
Police investigators had said that the suspects threw the gun into a river along with the victims' bodies.
A spokesman for the victims' families, Aptoro Lokbere, said he was "satisfied" with the conviction and sentence.
"On behalf of the victims' families, I would like to thank the panel of judges for handing the sentence in accordance with the wishes of the families," he said.
Gustaf Kawer, an attorney for the victims' families, said the life sentence for Maj. Helmanto was a "brave" decision that should be emulated by military and civilian courts in similar cases.
"I think that a good decision will certainly positively affect the image of the state, the TNI [armed forces], and the public's trust in the judiciary," Gustaf told BenarNews.
The verdict could raise public confidence that perpetrators of rights abuses could be held accountable, said Atnike Nova Sigiro, chair of the National Commission on Human Rights.
"This decision also shows that the public's wish for justice in Papua is beginning to become a reality," she told BenarNews. "This can increase public confidence in military justice."
[Pizaro Gozali Idrus in Jakarta contributed to this report.]