West Papua: Human Rights Lawyer Takes Indonesian Police to Court to Defend West Papuans
Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer, used to be very nationalistic until the day she heard about school children being killed by authorities back in 2014. She then decided to do everything to expose the situation in West Papua. She is now leading a civil case against Indonesian police in which she seeks compensation for an illegal raid of a West Papuan activist group’s headquarters.
The article below was published by The Guardian:
An Indonesian human rights lawyer is among those taking the Indonesian police to court on behalf of all West Papuans, in an unprecedented civil case over what she claims is the illegal takeover of an activist group’s headquarters.
Veronica Koman is part of a legal coalition bringing the civil suit which is the first of its kind, and although it focuses on one particular incident, is seen as a landmark case in the fight for West Papuan independence from Indonesia.
The case – she is pursuing police for more than $100,000 in damages over their raid of an activist group’s headquarters on New Year’s Eve – has come at a personal cost.
Koman, who travels to West Papua to represent those charged with separatism-related crimes, told the Guardian her work has led to abuse and death threats.
At a December rally she and others were pelted with rocks by fellow Indonesians, and she became the specific target of anti-separatist protests, sending her into hiding. “It was pretty rough … people were screaming at me: ‘you traitor, you are funding this separatism’,” she said.
Koman said she used to be “very nationalistic” when she was working as a legal aid officer in Jakarta. But when she learned of the shooting deaths of four schoolchildren by Indonesian authorities in December 2014 she became involved in public demonstrations and met West Papuan independence activists.
“Once I heard about the 2014 killings case and I started to learn more about West Papua… and it really opened my eyes. That’s my mission now, to expose what’s happening in West Papua.”
“I learn bravery and resilience from the West Papuan people. It really changed my life – how I see it, and how I see resistance.”
Koman and other local West Papuan lawyers are representing an activist group called the National Committee for West Papua (KNPB) in the legal claim against the Mimika branch of Indonesia’s Papua police over the New Year’s Eve raid. “Hundreds of fully armed police and military came at 6am,” Koman said of the raid. She is also representing people charged with treason offences and alleges several were seriously injured and showed signs of “excessive force” by police.
Koman said KNPB had become a “hub” for the local community, running social programs, prayer meetings, and mediating tribal disputes. “They were sleeping in the headquarters – it’s not just people discussing independence all the time.”
The Papuan regional police said they were taking over the building as a joint security post with the military and say they were within their rights to seize control of the building because it belonged to the local government, which had given it to the local community. Authorities have also said the land belonged to Freeport, the operator of the nearby Grasberg gold and copper mine.
Koman and the KNPB dispute this, saying they have written evidence from the Amingme customary owners that the land was given to them.
It is difficult to gain a true picture of the struggle. Foreign media is banned from entering West Papua, and misinformation is common. “Indonesian security forces tend to underplay what is happening – the numbers etc – while West Papuans’ tend to overplay,” Koman says.
However she believes the majority of it comes from Indonesia, which she says engages in “total distortion”.
“That’s why I understand [Indonesians’] way of thinking – I was one of them,” she said. “We in Jakarta don’t hear about the human rights violations.”
Around the time of the raid on the Timika headquarters, authorities arrested several activists as part of treason investigations, later charging three, whom Koman represented at a trial last week.
“They’re facing up to 20 years of imprisonment for treason, for ridiculous reasons – for praying and wanting to hold their traditional ceremony,” she said.
A second trial sees two KNPB members charged with “disobedience against authority”, which carries prison sentences of up to two years, she said.
The trials come amid a months-long escalation in the long-running civil conflict, after separatist militants attacked a construction site, killing at least 17 people.
The militants claimed all those killed were Indonesian military, but Indonesia said they were civilian construction workers, and launched a crackdown on the region, which continues. On Friday, Indonesian authorities said two soldiers had been injured in an ambush by rebels.
Indonesian authorities have also alleged election organisers in Papua were attacked by armed militia.
The court is expected to make a decision on the civil case in coming weeks.
Indonesia’s representatives in Australia have been contacted for comment.
Photo courtesy of Michael Coghlan