In the early hours of 7 December 2000, an unidentified group of people attacked the police station at Abepura, a town just outside the provincial capital of Jayapura. Two policemen and a security guard died. Reprisal was swift and brutal, but was not directed against the attackers who had got away. Over a 24 hour period, Brimob (paramilitary police) troops raided several dormitories housing students predominantly from highland regions, and systematically brutalised them, fatally shooting one high school student, and injuring many more. One student was permanently incapacitated, while another man was crippled and later died from his injuries.
Of the more than one hundred students, men, women and children detained, many were beaten severely and tortured, two were tortured to death. Incredibly a Swiss journalist Oswald Iten witnessed the beatings at the police station. Police told him, he said, that this was normal procedure when a policeman was killed.
Reformasi – hope for justice?
Confrontations between Papuans and security forces have occurred since as early as 1964, increasing in the volatile post-Suharto period. But while before reformasi security force abuse was rarely brought to justice, hopes were now raised. The Constitution had been amended to include a ‘bill of rights’ to protect citizen rights, and also the new Human Rights Court had been established in 2003.
By May 2001 Indonesia's National Human Rights Commission (KomnasHAM) submitted its investigation report, naming 25 suspects. Yet it took a further three years for the Attorney General’s office to bring the case to court, deciding only two of the 25 police would stand trial. In May 2004 the Human Rights Court in Makassar began hearings against the two accused.
A civil society coalition from Papua and elsewhere in Indonesia – The Coalition of NGOs for the Abepura Case - supported the victims and families over the five long years of their quest for justice. Making use of the provisions of Law No 26/2000 establishing the Human Rights Court, the coalition applied continual pressure and ensured that the case proceeded, despite apparent attempts by the authorities to hinder the case.
On 8 September 2005, in the Makassar court’s first major case, Brigadier General Johnny Wainal Usman was acquitted of charges of ordering the torture and killing of civilians. The following day Senior Commander Daud Sihombing was also acquitted. Sihombing, who was police chief at the time, and Wailan Usman, then BRIMOB commander, had allegedly ordered that the attackers be ‘hunted down’. The victim's claims for compensation were also dismissed.
Brother Budi Hernawan, a member of the KomnasHAM investigation team and a key supporter of the victims and their families, believes the result was a travesty of justice. The NGO coalition supported the victims believing that, in the new era and with the new Human Rights Court, they would get justice. The acquittal rendered this belief meaningless. Ordinary people in Papua no longer have any reason to believe in the legal process. Hernawan claims that there was ‘strong political influence’ on the judges and prosecutors. As Budi told ABC Radio National ‘I think this is a bad precedent for the whole justice system in Indonesia and the whole area of human rights.’
For the survivors, and their supporters, the acquittal was sign that ordinary people cannot get justice. Would the verdict have been any different if the victims had not been Papuans? During the beatings, one student recalled the police spitting on him and saying ‘Your mother eats pig and you have the brains of a pig! Even with your college degree you won’t get a job. You Papuans are stupid; stupid and yet you think you can be independent.’
This dehumanisation process is a powerful dynamic. John Rumbiak, ELSHAM’s former supervisor who was forced into exile following persistent death threats, draws parallels between the racism he observed in the US towards African-Americans and the treatment Papuans experience.
To Papuans the legal reforms have made no difference. The security forces still seem able to abuse Papuans with impunity. After the Abepura case, how can Papuans hope that their interests will be protected by the ‘reformed’ justice system?
Annie Feith (email@example.com ) wrote a minor thesis on human rights NGOs in West Papua. (See www.papuaweb.org ) She works as a Red Cross caseworker. See To End Impunity’ by Lucia Withers in Inside Indonesia No. 67, July-September 2001.