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Families seek diocese's help to free 21 Indonesian farmers

Rights group questions the validity of arrests made supposedly for trespassing on land in an ownership dispute

Families seek diocese's help to free 21 Indonesian farmers

Families of detained farmers in East Nusa Tenggara province meet Ruteng Diocese officials on Sept. 20. (Photo supplied)

The families of 21 Catholic farmers detained by police for more than two months over a land dispute in Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province have sought help from the local diocese.

They met Ruteng Diocese officials on Sept 20 and asked for help in winning the release of their loved ones being held by West Manggarai district police on Flores island.

The farmers were arrested on July 2 for allegedly working on four hectares of disputed land located in Golo Mori, near the tourist town of Labuan Bajo. 

Three of them are from Golo Mori and claim they are the landowners while 18 are farm workers brought in from neighboring Manggarai district to help work the land which is also claimed by three other farmers.

Adelheid Manur, 48, the wife of one of the 18 detained farm workers, told diocesan officials that all those detained were unaware other farmers had claimed the land.

"They only come to work after being asked by the landowners to help them for a wage of 75,000 rupiah (US$5.20) per day," she said.

The arrests and detentions are human rights violations and were carried out arbitrarily

In a letter submitted to the diocese, the families expressed their hope that Bishop Sipirianus Hormat would visit the farmers and fight for their release.

Father Alfons Segar, the diocese’s vicar general, told UCA News that they will still study the case in detail before deciding what to do next. "We have only heard information conveyed by the families,” he said.

The families had previously appealed for help from the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Divine Word Missionaries to investigate the case.

In a report published this month and sent to a number of institutions, including the National Human Rights Commission, Father Simon Suban Tukan, the commission’s coordinator, said they had found irregularities in the case.

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He questioned the arrest because the parties involved, including the three other villagers who also claimed the land, had agreed to resolve the issue peacefully.

Father Tukan said the complaint was lodged a day after the arrests were made and that the named complainant had denied making the complaint.

"The arrests and detentions are human rights violations and were carried out arbitrarily," he said.

West Manggarai district police chief Bambang Hari Wibowo said the arrests were made to avert potential violence.

He said the farmers were being held on suspicion of disturbing public order, which carries a maximum 10-year prison term.

Asked why the detainees were still being held without trial beyond the maximum 60 days stipulated by law, he said the case had been referred to the court, which had requested revisions to the case file.

Piter Ruman, the farmers' lawyer, accused the police of making excuses and of working on the orders of influential land speculators seeking to grab the disputed land.

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