A district court in Ambon on Thursday sentenced nine political activists to prison for treason in a verdict that has drawn sharp criticism from human rights advocates. The defendants, who received jail terms ranging from one to four years, were arrested in April last year after participating in a peaceful procession to mark the anniversary of the Republic of South Maluku in Ambon (RMS). Yanes Balubun, a lawyer for the defendants, denounced the verdict and said the activists should be released immediately. “They did not intend to destroy Indonesia’s sovereignty. What they did was an expression of political choice,” he told ucanews.com on Friday. RMS attempted to secede in 1950 but was defeated by Indonesian forces the same year. A low-level armed struggle followed on Seram island until 1963. As in Papua province, the Indonesian government has handed down stiff sentences to anyone taking part in acts of civil disobedience or in commemoration of efforts to seek independence, including the raising of the RMS flag. Balubun said the actions of the nine activists did not constitute treason as stipulated under the nation’s criminal code because they were not accompanied by violence. “Their actions did not contain that element, so this is actually not treason,” he said. Balubun said he and other defense lawyers for the group would meet next week to discuss a possible appeal of the verdicts. “We will also report the judges to the Judicial Commission in Jakarta about a number of irregularities during the trial process,” Balubun said, noting that the judges routinely refused to allow expert witnesses for the defendants to testify. Andreas Harsono, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Indonesia, called the trial another stain on Indonesia’s efforts to improve human rights and democracy. “Indonesia should expand their democracy from Java island and the outer islands, especially in eastern Indonesia,” he told ucanews.com. HRW has repeatedly called on the Indonesian government to release political prisoners in the Moluccas islands and in Papua. “But they stubbornly and stupidly refuse to treat the protesters with fairness,” he said. Harsono urged President Jokowi to drop all charges and order the release of an estimated 100 political prisoners still in custody, and to revoke the provisions of the 2007 regulation banning peaceful demonstrations and displays of political symbols.
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Roichatul Aswiday of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) blamed the verdict on outdated views by law enforcement officials and said the definition of treason should be revised in light of the country’s embracing of democracy. He added that Komnas HAM would meet with government officials to discuss the verdict and the broader issues of political prisoners in the country. A family member of one of the defendants who asked not to be named for security reasons said the verdict was difficult to accept. “He was not wrong. He did not violate the rights of people. How could he be jailed simply for participating in a rally,” the family member said. The Indonesian government has grown extremely sensitive toward pro-independence agitation in Maluku following an embarrassing incident during a 2007 visit to Ambon by then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. On June 29, 2007 a group of South Moluccan dancers passed uninhibited through several layers of security at Ambon’s stadium, and confronted Yudhoyono by performing a traditional cakalele war dance and unfurling an RMS flag. More than 70 people were arrested, and HRW documented evidence that many were tortured during detention and questioning. Ambon’s district court subsequently convicted more than three dozen of the men and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from five to 20 years. According to Moshe Tuwanakotta, an RMS activist and former political prisoner, there are 15 RMS political prisoners still in incarcerated in Java.