COVID-19 Op-ed

Exposing the Seemingly-Benevolent Policy on the Assimilation and Integration Detainee Program for the West Papua Political Activists amidst the Pandemic

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Arif R. HaryonoStudent, Asia
Pacific MA Human Rights and Democratisation
Global Campus
of Human Rights Asia Pacific
Institute of Human Rights
and Peace Studies, Mahidol University

Indonesia’s detention centers are considered one of the
possible epicenters of COVID-19. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner
for Human Rights (OHCHR) has urged the states to protect the rights of health
and safety of people in detention centers and its variations amidst the
pandemic (OHCHR, 2020). Furthermore, the OHCHR has provided strong advice to
release detainees who have been detained without a sufficient legal basis,
including political prisoners. The West Papua political detainees, however,
might face difficulties to be released as a political bias against them
envelops the whole assimilation and integration program.In early April 2020,
the Government of Indonesia, through the Ministry of Law and Human Rights,
planned to assimilate 30,000 adult and child prisoners convicted of petty
crimes as a way to prevent the spreading of COVID-19 in the detention center
(Colville, 2020). With capacity exceeding up to 204.9 percent (WPB, 2020),
the Indonesian detention centers also endure various problems that
potentially violate the rights of the detainees even in a non-pandemic
situation, such as understaffing, an elbow-to-elbow cell block, unhygienic
environments, bad sanitation, and inadequate health service (Gorbiano,
Erviani, Gunawan, 2020). Considering these circumstances, it is impossible to
conduct physical/social distancing, let alone a self-quarantine procedure in
the detention centers. Thus, releasing the prisoners is one approach not only
to protect lives but also to uphold the rights of the detainees amidst the
pandemic.Despite the critical situation, the government seems to have no
intention to release any political detainees soon. Ministerial Decree no. 10
of 2020 on Terms of Assimilation and Integration Rights for Prisoners and
Children in the Prevention of Spreading Covid-19 stipulates that only
well-behaved inmates who have served two-thirds of their sentence, and
well-behaved juveniles who have served half of their sentence, are eligible
to be released (Ministerial
Decree, article 10
). The West Papua activists are accused of
treason (makar) as they participated in the 2019 peace
demonstration. Five of six of them (Surya Anta Ginting, Dano Anes Tabuni,
Charles Kossay, Ambrosius Mulait, dan Arina Elopere) are expected to be
released in mid-May 2020 (Sutrisna,
). They are among those who are included in the pandemic’s
assimilation and integration program. However, on the night of their release,
the government apparatus mysteriously called off the release indicating the
influence of a political aspect rather than a benevolent intent or promoting
the detainees’ rights.Historically speaking, Indonesia is no stranger to
releasing political detainees. Indonesia’s Presidents have given parole and
amnesty to many political detainees using their executive authority granted
by the constitution. Between 1954 and 1998, Presidents Soekarno and Soeharto
promulgated six amnesty decrees for separatists and rebels, in the name of
national unity. President BJ Habibie released around 230 political prisoners,
including the Timor Leste and West Papua political activists, to show the
cutting of the knot with the previous regime. President Abdurrahman Wahid
provided political acknowledgment towards the West Papua’s
once-politically-ill-perceived Morning Star Flag (Bintang Kejora). President
Yudhoyono provided amnesty and abolition for 1,424 high-political figures
related to Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (or Free Aceh Movement), as a sign of
reconciliation after The Helsinki Treaty (Pascoe, 2017, p. 325). In his early
administration, President Joko Widodo also has followed the steps of his
predecessor by releasing five West Papua political detainees connected with
the Free Papua Organization (Pratama, 2015).From the pattern above, we can
conclude that utilizing political power to release political detainees
requires a strong political agenda to overcome the litigative and
administrative procedures. Furthermore, the writer also understands that the
conflict between Indonesia and the West Papua political activists has many
historical, sociological, human rights, as well as economic layers. These
layers could provide a political hindrance to the release of the West Papua
political detainees.Given the current COVID-19 crisis and the likelihood that
Indonesia’s detention centers have the possibility of becoming the epicenter
of a pandemic, those aspects mentioned above should not be a deterrent.
Political gains and leverages should not even be discussed in these matters,
as the lives of human beings are being threatened. The benevolent purposes of
the Ministerial Decree no. 10 of 2020 are to protect the lives and the rights
of detainees and to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the detention centers.
However, with the recent cancellation of the release of the West Papua
political detainees, the Decree has failed its seemingly benevolent purpose
by the hand of political elites with malevolent agendas.References:Colville,
R., 2020. Press Briefing Note on COVID-19.  Geneva: UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights. Available at: <>
.Gorbiano, M. I., Erviani, N. K., Gunawan, A., 2020. Overcrowded
And Understaffed, Prisons Scramble To Protect Inmates From
. Jakarta. 24 March 2020. 
The Jakarta Post. Available at: <>
.OHCHR, 2020. Urgent Action Needed To Prevent Covid-19 Rampaging
Through Places Of Detention
. Geneva. 25 March 2020.  Available at: <>.
.Pascoe, D., 2017. Legal Dilemmas in Releasing Indonesia’s Political
Prisoners. Indonesia Law Review, 3, p. 315-340.
Available at DOI: <>.
.Robinson, J., Koman, V., 2020. Urgent Appeals Filed With Un By 63
Political Prisoners In Indonesia Amid The Covid-19 Pandemic
.  Available at: <>
.Sutrisna, T., 2020. Lima Aktivis Papua Terdakwa Makar Batal Bebas
Hari Ini Meski Sudah Jalani Prosedur Administrasi
. .
Available at: <>
. Terms Of Giving Assimilation And
Integration Rights For Prisoners And Children In The Prevention Of And
Prevention Of Covid-19 Spreads
. Ministerial Decree no. 10 of 2020
. Jakarta: Ministry of Law and Human Rights Republic of Indonesia. Available
at: <>WPB,
2020. World Prison Brief: Overview of Indonesia.  Available at: <>

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