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A Papuan Catholic's struggle for human rights

Pope, bishops can strengthen voice of priests and church bodies upholding human dignity and rights, says Emanuel Gobay

A Papuan Catholic's struggle for human rights

Papuan rights activist Emanuel Gobay says he is carrying out his 'prophetic duties.' (Photo supplied)

Published: March 14, 2022 04:56 AM GMT

Updated: March 14, 2022 05:05 AM GMT

Human rights defender Emanuel Gobay wants the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church to back priests and church advocacy groups who dare to speak out for the dignity and rights of Papuans.

“Those voices will have strong echoes if they are supported by a larger institution such as a bishops’ conference or perhaps the Holy Father in the Vatican,” he says.

“In the Bible, there is a passage which says Jesus was sent to ‘liberate the oppressed.’ From the Papua context, the people Jesus called the oppressed were us, the Papuans.”

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The 35-year-old Catholic human rights lawyer believes he is carrying out his “prophetic duties” through his activism but admits to his constant struggle with that one question — how to fight for the dignity of Papuans?

“I always want to make sure that we are not treated arbitrarily just because of our physique or the stigma that lingered among us,” he says.

Gobay is grateful for the concern and support from those outside Papua, including international institutions. He cites a recent letter from the UN special rapporteur on human rights to the Indonesian government regarding the issue of refugees and forced detention.

“When I was a child, I often witnessed people in my village being beaten arbitrarily by police and military” 

Since officially joining Indonesia in 1969, Papua continues to be plagued by conflict with pro-independence armed groups keeping up the resistance.

The Indonesian government has a heavy security presence in the easternmost region, ostensibly to maintain security.

But in reality, shocking abuses have been taking place against indigenous Papuans as noted by UN-appointed rights experts in a statement on March 1 that cited child killings, disappearances, torture and enforced mass displacement. 

“Between April and November 2021, we have received allegations indicating several instances of extrajudicial killings, including of young children, enforced disappearance, torture and inhuman treatment, and the forced displacement of at least 5,000 indigenous Papuans by security forces,” the independent experts said.

As a defender of human rights for the past decade, Gobay is always on alert for news on such abuses, which occur almost every day.

He gets involved in documenting and reporting the abuses, collecting data from primary sources and monitoring the situation with help of various collaborators, including journalists.

“We cannot handle all cases, but at least those that reach us are not overlooked,” he says.

"I just thought that I should not be treated arbitrarily and should also help others. I found that by studying law I could argue with security officers”

Gobay was born at Wamena in Jayawijaya district and moved to Paniai district while in junior high school.

“When I was a child, I often witnessed people in my village being beaten arbitrarily by police and military,” he recalls.

This made him decide to get into human rights activism and thus he chose to study law at a private university in Yogyakarta.

“I just thought that I should not be treated arbitrarily and should also help others. I found that by studying law I could argue with security officers,” he says.

His intent got stronger when four students were shot dead and 20 left injured at a demonstration in his village Paniai in 2014. Gobay said one of the dead was a family member who had visited his home before being shot.

The investigations conducted by the National Human Rights Commission proved the soldiers had committed a gross violation of human rights, but the case was stalled and the perpetrators remain at large.

Gobay joined the Legal Aid Institute in Yogyakarta where he began assisting Papuan students and activists who were arrested and charged with treason for participating in protests. He also helped marginalized groups such as the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.

The opportunity to get further involved with rights issues in Papua came in November 2018 when he was asked to move to Papua. Gobay was assigned higher responsibilities as director of Papua Legal Aid Institute in March 2019.

“My photos are sometimes manipulated and made into posters with provocative tones”

Since then, he has got involved in advocating various cases, including those of the displaced since the escalation of violence in December 2018. UN estimates put the overall number of displaced at between 60,000 to 100,000 people.

He has also been helping people fight land grab operations by plantation companies.

One of the high-profile cases is the ongoing trial of Victor Yeimo, the international spokesman for the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), who is accused of being the mastermind of riots in several cities in Papua in September 2019. 

The riots were sparked by an incident in Surabaya, East Java province, where a group of Papuan students were reportedly called monkeys, dogs and pigs after allegedly vandalizing the Indonesian flag.

Gobay said speaking up about human rights abuses as well as defending political activists meant he was often labeled as a part of the separatists or counted among their active supporters. It makes him vulnerable to intimidation.

He recalled how a police chief in Merauke district threatened to report him last year for demanding the release of dozens of local activists accused of treason.

“My photos are sometimes manipulated and made into posters with provocative tones,” Gobay says.

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