JAKARTA – Indonesian police on Wednesday accused a human rights lawyer of spreading information on Twitter that incited violent protests in the restive Papua region, in a decision that a rights group said was an appalling attack on freedom of expression.
East Java police chief Luki Hermawan said Veronica Koman intentionally spread information about the harsh arrests of 43 Papuan students at a dormitory in East Java’s Surabaya city through her Twitter account, sparking protests in West Papua and Papua provinces.
“She was very active in spreading provocative news,” Hermawan said at a news conference.
Koman, who has provided legal aid to many Papuan political activists and documented human rights violations in Papua, could face up to six years in jail and a fine of 1 billion rupiah ($70,700) if found guilty under Indonesia’s criminal code and electronic information and transaction law.
Hermawan said police will request assistance from the Indonesian State Intelligence Agency and Interpol in tracking her location. Police believe she is currently abroad.
Thousands of Papuans have demonstrated in the past week for the region’s independence and against racist remarks by security forces. The protests were triggered by videos circulated on the internet showing security forces calling Papuan students “monkeys” and “dogs” in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city.
Human rights group Amnesty International condemned the accusations against Koman as an attack on freedom of expression and a brazen attempt to silence a brave activist.
“These charges are clearly intended to deter others from speaking out against human rights violations related to Papua,” the group’s executive director for Indonesia, Usman Hamid, said in a statement.
He called on Indonesian authorities to immediately drop the accusations against Koman.
National police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo earlier said that police also arrested an Indonesian woman and man accused of inciting local Indonesian people in Surabaya to besiege a dormitory where Papuan students stayed after a torn Indonesian flag was found in a sewer. Several police and soldiers have also been suspended while being investigated for allegedly insulting the students.
Police have arrested more than 40 people suspected of taking part in violent protests in the region.
Wiranto, the coordinating minister of politics, law and security, said Wednesday that at least four civilians and a soldier were killed in the protests in Papua province. Several government buildings, offices, shops, cars and gas station were burned.
Wiranto, who uses one name, said the situation is now under control despite small protests in some places.
Conflicts between indigenous Papuans and Indonesian security forces are common in the impoverished Papua region, which Indonesia took control more than half a century ago. It was formally incorporated into the country in 1969 after a U.N.-sponsored ballot that was seen as a sham by many.
Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the mineral-rich region, which is divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua.
In recent years, some Papua students, including some who study in other provinces, have become vocal in calling for self-determination for their region.