Indonesia designates Papuan separatists as 'terrorists'

Protesters demanding that Papua's political prisoners be released without conditions, in Jakarta on June 15, 2020.
Protesters demanding that Papua's political prisoners be released without conditions, in Jakarta on June 15, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Indonesia has formally designated Papuan separatists as "terrorists", its chief security minister said on Thursday (April 29), a move that activists said could expand the powers of security forces, including lengthy detentions without charge.

The legal designation follows a call by President Joko Widodo for a crackdown on Papuan rebels after an intelligence officer was shot dead on Sunday in the country's easternmost region, where a low-level rebellion has been fought for decades.

"The government thinks that organisations and the people in Papua who commit massive violence can be classified as terrorists," chief security minister Mahfud MD told a news conference.

"Terrorism is any action that uses violence or threats of violence that create an air of terror or fear," he said, citing a 2018 counter-terrorism law.

Separatists in the remote, resource-rich region say their struggle is legitimate as the Netherlands - its former colonial power - promised Papua independence before the region was annexed in 1963.

Indonesia says Papua is its territory, as confirmed by the outcome of a 1969 referendum. Separatists say that vote did not reflect their aspirations.

Indonesia's counter-terrorism law allows the authorities to detain individuals without charge for up to 21 days and intercept communications if they are suspected of being used for planning or committing "terrorist" acts.

"The scope of work in Papua will be much bigger, thus it will also open more possibilities of abuses," said Mr Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, referring to the new designation.

Earlier this month, Reuters reported on three brothers who were allegedly killed by Indonesian soldiers in Papua's central highlands.

Mr Usman Hamid, director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said the "terrorist" tag could also see free speech and association curtailed, and "will only show that the government failed again to see the root causes of Papua's rebellions".

Mr Sebby Sembom, a spokesman for separatist group West Papua National Liberation Army, rejected the government's designation.

"The world knows we fight for freedom," he said.