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Fighting for the truth behind violence in Papua

Theo Hesegem leaves no stone unturned in exposing military and police 'cover-ups' in the restive Indonesian region

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Fighting for the truth behind violence in Papua

Papuan activist Theo Hesegem (standing with long sleeves) visits villagers in Wuluagaima in Yahukimo district on Oct. 1, soon after two villagers were allegedly beaten by soldiers. (Photo supplied)

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When violence occurs in Papua, there are always a few versions of the story, and it often confuses the public. 

Theo Hesegem, a renowned Papuan activist, is always searching for the facts, particularly to challenge authorities who produce their own version of incidents.

“Police and military statements often do not reveal the true facts. Because of that, I choose to go directly to the scene,” the 46-year-old Papuan told UCA News. "It's difficult for them to refute my reports when I show them photos of the victims I meet in the field.” 

Hesegem regularly publishes his findings, distributing them to human rights groups in Jakarta and throughout the world. 

He says part of his efforts are to “confront the military and police chiefs with the victim's version of events.” 

The results of Hesegem’s investigations are always at odds with those of the authorities. 

For instance, the military claimed no residents were killed during a military operation in Nduga district triggered by separatists killing a group of construction workers in December 2018. However, Hesegem and his team found that many civilians had died during the operation.

In a report released in August 2019, his group revealed information about the deaths of more than 182 people and more than 45,000 residents who fled their homes.

"I verified the data directly with various parties, and I dare to say that the information from the authorities was a lie," he said.

Hesegem was originally a journalist working for a local media outlet, but since 2004 he has focused on human rights advocacy. 

"I feel the need to focus on activism because I feel that the Papua situation needs someone like me," he says.

"Sometimes, it’s the victim's family who contacts me when something has happened. Sometimes, I decide to come right away when I learn about a case [of violence]." 

In some cases, the victims’ families are willing to provide his accommodation, but most of the time he spends his own money searching for the truth. 

Intimidation

Because of his advocacy work, Hesegem is often threatened and labeled a political agitator. 

In July, while investigating the shooting of a father and son — Elias Karunggu and Selu Karunggu — by the military in Nduga district, he received text messages accusing him of being part of a separatist group.

"You seem to have been pro-separatist so far," read one of the messages, which he received after meeting the victims' family. 

In 2017, he said he received threats from a military commander in Jayawijaya district after he had reported the torture of Niko Hisage, who was accused of stealing a cow. "He intimidated me over the phone," he said.

In 2015, he received death threats from the police when he acted on behalf of Roby Pekei, who was shot three times during his arrest by the Wamena police.

Realizing how vulnerable he is, Hesegem reports the threats he receives to various parties, including the military and police leaders, NGOs, and the UN's special human rights rapporteur.

"I just stick to the principle that if we are right, why be afraid. Because I believe that what I report is true, I will not submit to threats or accusations,” he says. 

“If they want to refute my report, let's have an open discussion. I am ready to take responsibility for what I do.” 

In 2015, Hesegem joined the Frontline Defenders, an international group that seeks to protect human rights defenders. As an accredited member, he says he feels safer going about investigating. It motivated him in 2018 to form the Advocacy Network for Upholding Law and Human Rights of Papua Central Highlands, of which he is the executive director.

Father John Djonga, an activist priest based in Jayapura, says Papua needs more people like Hesegem who "want to walk together with fellow Papuans who experienced violence.”

“What he has done opens the eyes of many people regarding what is really happening here. People who become victims have room to tell their version of events,” he told UCA News. 

The priest says that despite restrictions on access to media in Papua, including international media, "Hesegem's reports can help provide a window to see what is happening on the ground.” 

No end in sight

Hesegem says what he has found so far is that there has been no change in the handling of problems in Papua. 

"The approach is the same, namely violence, militarization and the practice of impunity, while the marginalization of local people is getting worse," he says. "The government is still consistently adopting a strategy of denial."

Hesegem related how a young Indonesian diplomat, Silvany Austin Pasaribu, vehemently denied claims of rights abuses in Papua raised by Vanuatu during the United Nations General Assembly last month.

Such denials by Indonesia make the world laugh, he says. "If nothing changes, there will be no peace in this land.” 

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