(Reuters) – An Indonesian court is expected to deliver a verdict on Wednesday in a high-profile trial of seven West Papuans accused of treason, in a case that has drawn concern about deteriorating political freedoms in the world’s third-largest democracy.
The seven men face between five and 17 years in prison if found guilty of treason, after they joined anti-racism protests that swept across Indonesia’s westernmost provinces last August.
The demonstrations were sparked by alleged racist attacks on several Papuan students in Java, including being called “monkeys”.
The defendants deny the charges. Among them is Buchtar Tabuni, a senior figure in a pro-Papuan independence group, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), Agus Kossay and Stevanus Itlay from the National Committee for West Papua (KNPB) and several Papuan university students.
They were arrested in the provincial capital Jayapura last year and moved to Balikpapan on Indonesian Borneo for security reasons.
The resource-rich and remote provinces of Papua and West Papua came under Indonesian rule in a controversial 1969 referendum sanctioned by the United Nations.
A low-level insurgency for independence has ensued since and the topic remains deeply sensitive to Indonesia’s government.
Flying the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence, is banned in Indonesia. Independence figure Filep Karma was convicted of treason after raising the flag publicly and spent 11 years in jail before his release in 2015.
The Balikpapan trial has drawn unusual levels of support in Indonesia, where it has coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.
That has inspired a local adaptation – Papuan Lives Matter – which Indonesians have used on social media and in street demonstrations calling for the Papuans’ release.
The global movement has also sparked online forums about perceived racism and discrimination in Indonesia, events that activists say have been subject to obstruction and intimidation.
Reporting by Kate Lamb in Sydney; Editing by Martin Petty