Nikodemus Manao is a leader of the Besipae tribe battling for land rights in East Nusa Tenggara province for decades
Nikodemus Manao, a Christian and leader of Besipae tribe in the Christian-majority East Nusa Tenggara province in seen in a detention center. (Photo: kompas.id)
An Indonesian tribal Christian is facing imprisonment for allegedly attacking a government official, which activists say highlights the struggles of an indigenous group fighting for land rights for decades.
A state prosecutor demanded that the South Central Timor District Court sentence Nikodemus Manao to seven months in prison during his trial on July 12.
Manao, 43, a leader of the Besipae tribe in the Christian-majority East Nusa Tenggara province, is accused of violating Article 351 of the Criminal Code for beating a civil servant, Bernadus Seran, last year.
His lawyer, Victor Emanuel Manbait, claimed Manao was falsely charged with assaulting Seran in October 2022.
Manbait said Seran was indeed beaten by tribal people who were angry with him after he issued a letter ordering them to vacate about 3,700 hectares of disputed land in 2020.Since then, the tribal Besipae community staged five protests opposing the government order.
Manbait claimed all the witnesses he presented dismissed charges against Manao.
“One of the odd things is that the prosecutor never presented any key witnesses who saw or were at the location of the assault. The witnesses presented were only those who claimed to have heard the story of the assault," he told UCA News.
Instead, he said, the state prosecutor used the testimony of Bernadus Seran and the witness who claimed to have heard the story about the assault to conclude “Manao was the culprit.”
Manbait said the legal proceedings against Manao are part of an effort to pressure the community to stop fighting against the provincial government for the land.
Manao was told by a detention center official that he would be released only after he signs a letter stating that after he is released, he will stop fighting for the land rights of the Besipae people, he added.
The state prosecutor was not available for comment.
The conflict between the provincial government and the Besipae people started in 1982 when some 6,000 hectares of land were declared a cattle ranch, part of a partnership between the provincial government and the Australian government.
Besipae people claimed that more than half the total 6,000 hectares of the ranch land was theirs and they moved in to occupy the land when the agreement between local authorities and Australia ended in 1987.
However, in 2012, the central government secretly issued a land title certificate for 3,780 hectares to the provincial government and claimed that the leaders of the indigenous community had handed the land over in 1985.
Indigenous people continue to live on the land, even though the government has made several eviction attempts, the last being on October 20, 2022.
Francisco Tukan, of the Besipae Solidarity Alliance which organizes the rallies at the courts during each trial, told UCA News they were showing solidarity with Manao “who is a victim of arbitrary attempts to suppress the voice of indigenous peoples.”
“There was a reckless attempt to criminalize it. In fact, there is no evidence to show Nikolaus Manao was the perpetrator," he said.
Land conflicts between the government and Besipae indigenous community are included in 212 agrarian conflict eruptions reported by the Consortium for Agrarian Reform throughout 2022, covering 1.03 million hectares of land and impacting 346,402 families. This data has increased from 207 cases in 2021, covering 500 hectares of land.
The consortium also noted that throughout 2022 there had been 497 criminalization cases experienced by fighters for land rights, a significant increase compared to 2021 of 150 cases and 120 cases in 2020.
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