Thursday, November 24, 2011

Filep Karma, prisoner of conscience

Again, to explain: The columnists’ mug shots show closed eyes this entire week, our way of proclaiming solidarity with victims of crimes and their families who have doubly suffered because of the culture of impunity which has allowed those guilty to remain unpunished or to be above the law. This week also marks the second anniversary of the massacre of 58 innocents, 32 of them media practitioners, which happened in Ampatuan, Maguindanao. Although some masterminds and other suspects are now behind bars, the judicial process proceeds at a slow pace and the families of the victims have yet to get the justice they are crying for.
We close our eyes to pray, reflect and remember.

And while we continue to keep vigil for our suffering fellow Filipinos, it is also fitting that we take up the plight of our immediate neighbors. An Indonesian journalist, who now works for Human Rights Watch and specializes in human rights abuses in West Papua, asked me if I could spare some space for a Papuan political prisoner. (We met in East Timor in 1995.Our Filipino group and several foreign Human Rights Watch workers were, at that time, among those hastily kicked out of the island after our presence was discovered by Indonesian intelligence.)
The man of the hour is Filep Karma, proudly Papuan (but with Indonesian citizenship), who has been languishing in jail for some six years because he expressed his desire to see his fellow Papuans and his homeland free from Indonesian rule.
Last week, Karma won his legal case in the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Karma, sometimes called “the Nelson Mandela of West Papua,” is probably the most well-known political prisoner in Indonesia. It used to be Xanana Gusmao, whose case I had followed and whom I had written about during Timor Leste’s protracted bloody struggle to gain independence from Indonesia. Heavily tortured while in prison, Gusmao would later become the first president of his new country. I wept upon seeing their flag raised for the first time.

It is now West Papua’s turn to be heard. Karma is the voice of a people’s hope for freedom. Karma is detained at the Abepura prison in Jayapura. He wishes his Filipino friends and alma mater to know about his plight and take up his cause. Karma lived in the Philippines from 1997 to 1998 while studying at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati.

Karma was thrown into prison on Dec. 1, 2004, after he raised high the Papuan Morning Star flag at a political rally that commemorated the Papuans’ independence from Dutch rule.

Karma, who has explicitly denounced the use of violence, was convicted for crimes of hostility against the state and sedition. He is now serving a 15-year sentence despite calls for his release from NGOs and government officials. He is suffering from a prostate problem.

Karma recently won his case before the UN Working Group with the help of his pro bono lawyers from Freedom Now, a Washington-based NGO which also represents Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo of China. The same group represented Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma.

Freedom Now executive director Maran Turner stated: “The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found Indonesia’s actions a clear violation of international law. Mr. Karma is a non-violent advocate who was arrested for his views and convicted in a trial marred by judicial bias, denial of appeal without reason, and intimidation tactics.”

Freedom Now said that the UN Working Group had determined that Karma’s arrest was due to his exercise of the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. The UN group said that the provisions used to convict and detain Karma (which cited “feelings of hate”) were “drafted in such general and vague terms that they can be used arbitrarily to restrict the freedoms of opinion, expression, assembly and association.”

Karma’s detention violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a multi-party treaty by which Indonesia is bound, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In August 2011, 26 members of the US Congress urged Indonesian President Susilo Yudhoyono to release Karma. In 2008, 40 members of Congress signed a similar petition. US President Barack Obama’s presence at last week’s 2011 Asean Summit in Bali, Indonesia, raised some hopes that human rights discussions might take place.

Last year Human Rights Watch issued a 43-page report, “Prosecuting Political Aspiration: Indonesia’s Political Prisoners,” which criticized the arrest and prosecution of activists who peacefully raised banned symbols such as the Papuan Morning Star and the South Moluccan RMS flags. The report also gave details of torture of prisoners.

A backgrounder: The Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, sometimes collectively called Papua, are on the western half of the island of New Guinea. Unlike the rest of Indonesia, which became independent in 1945, Papua was under Dutch control until the 1960s. On Dec. 1, 1961, the Papuan Council, a body sponsored by the Dutch colonial authorities, declared that the Papuan people were ready to create a sovereign state, and issued a national flag called the Morning Star. Indonesian President Sukarno accused the Dutch of creating a puppet state and ordered his troops to invade Papua. In a 1959 referendum, 1,054 hand-picked Papuans gave their unanimous yes to join Indonesia. Many Papuans called this a fraudulent justification for Indonesia’s annexation of Papua.

Every Dec. 1, supporters of the Free Papua Movement raise the Papuan Morning Star.

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