Indonesian court convicts soldiers for killing and mutilation of West Papuans

The rare conviction by a military court for the gruesome killing of four Papuans in August was welcomed by civil society groups and rights advocates

February 17, 2023 by Anish R M
Protesters recreate the killing of four Papuans in Mimika, Papua, on September 3, 2022. (Photo: UCA News)

A court in Indonesia convicted four former soldiers for the murder of four West Papuans that took place in August 2022. As per local media outlet Jubi, on Wednesday February 15, the Jayapura Military Court III/19, found the four soldiers, of the 10 accused, guilty of premeditated murder.

The judgment is the second one to be handed down by a military court in the gruesome killing case. The latest convictions also come less than a month after the first accused soldier, Major Helmanto Francis Dakhi, was handed a life sentence on January 24 by the High Military Court III Surabaya.

Among the four convicted on Wednesday in Jayapura, two of the soldiers were sentenced to life imprisonment, while one received a prison sentence of 20 years and the fourth one received a sentence of 15 years.

The four were part of a group of six soldiers and four civilians who were involved in the murder of four West Papuan civilians last year. One of the soldiers died during the trial process, while the prosecution for the other four civilians involved in the murder are still being prosecuted by a district court in Timika, Central Papua.

While rights advocates and family members of the victims had expressed their reservations during the trial process, the convictions were seen as a welcome step towards addressing injustice in the region.

On August 26, 2022, mutilated bodies of four Papuans were discovered by local residents of Iwaka village, outside the town of Timika in West Papua. The police later ascertained them to be residents of the neighboring Nduga district.

Investigation by the local police claimed that the victims were lured by the accused soldiers to buy weapons, and they later murdered them and dumped their dismembered bodies in sacks in the nearby river.

Authorities and military officials claimed that the victims were separatist militants who were trying to buy weapons. However, victims’ families and residents of their village dismissed these claims and said they were on their way to buy agricultural equipment with money crowdfunded by villagers, on the day of their killing.

Decision a “breath of fresh air”

In a joint statement released on Thursday, February 16, a coalition of civil society groups stated that convictions “can be a breath of fresh air for the struggles of the victims’ families and the people of Papua in general.”

“This of course will set a pretty good precedent, bearing in mind the spiral of violence continues, especially for Papuan civilians involving the TNI (Indonesian National Armed Forces) – Polri (Indonesian National Police) apparatus,” the statement added.

The statement was signed by groups like the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS), Papuan Association of Human Rights Advocates (PAHAM), Amnesty International Indonesia, and SOS for the Land of Papua, along with nine others.

The statement also commended the judges for overlooking the concessions sought by military prosecutors and deeming the crimes as “severe” attracting the heavy prison sentences.

This was also noted by rights groups when Major Dakhi was sentenced, as the judges sentenced him to life on secondary charges of murder and also noted that it damaged relations between the military and the Papuan people.

Military prosecutors had tried to push for theft charges as primary charges during Dakhi’s trial, which would have attracted at best four years in prison. Similarly, military prosecutors also sought to secure leniency for the four remaining soldiers.

The people of West Papua for decades have been resisting and fighting the Indonesian occupation of their lands, demanding the right to self determination. In 2019, massive protests against racism broke out across the region and the violent repression of Papuan protesters saw tensions between Papuans and mainland settlers and security forces heightened. In response to these tensions there was an increase in the presence of the Indonesian military in the region.

While the Indonesian military has been widely accused of rights abuses and killing of civilians, it is rare that soldiers and high-ranking officials are brought to justice.