Empat mantan tapol untuk pertama kalinya usai dibebaskan dari penjara. Basilius Triharyanto

The Steep Path: West Papua’s Political Prisoners

Author: Basilius Triharyanto

Indonesia might rank well compared to some of its Southeast Asian neighbours in democracy indexes, but it’s not a reality felt by activists in West Papua. In fact, those who struggle for Papuan independence in opposition to the Jakarta administration are routinely arrested and imprisoned.

West Papua’s current place as part of Indonesia comes from a fraught and controversial history. Indonesia argues that the people of West Papua had voted to live under Indonesian rule via a referendum known as the “Act of Free Choice” in 1969. Many Papuans, though, point out that less than 1% of the population had been able to vote in the referendum, and that most Papuans hadn’t actually had a choice at all.

For more background, read our explainer on West Papua.

Pro-independence Papuan activists face significant risks: severe torture upon arrest is common. They also face other challenges if imprisoned, such as how to stay positive and hold on to the spirit of their struggle.

Four former Papuan political prisoners—Jefri Wandikbo, Agus Kraar, Filep Karma and Linus Hiluka—tell New Naratif that prison isn’t an end to the struggle. Instead, imprisonment is merely the beginning.

Their story is divided into four chapters: arrest, interrogation, imprisonment and life after prison.


On 4 April 2003, the weapons warehouse of Komando Distrik Militer 1702 (Military District Command Centre 1702) in Jayawijaya, Wamena, was broken into by suspected political activists looking to arm themselves. For a full month, military officers combed the entire Jayawijaya region, looking for those responsible for what became known as the “Kodim 1702 case”. They arrested Linus Hiel Hiluka as part of that operation.

Linus was born in Ibele Village in Jayawijaya on 25 August 1974, to parents who came from farming backgrounds. As a young scholar, Linus was originally known as a church activist. In 1999, he participated in meetings held by the Irian Jaya People’s Reconciliation Forum (FORERI), a pro-independence organisation of Papuan civil society leaders. The following year, he attended a conference which recommended convening the Second Papuan People’s Congress, which went on to adopt a resolution declaring that the “Papuan Nation has been sovereign as a people and state since 1 December 1961” and demanding accountability for crimes against humanity perpetrated in West Papua. The Congress also endorsed 31 members of the Papua Presidium Council (PDP)—a group established to represent West Papua’s independent campaign—and elected Theys Eluay as chair.  

(A year later in 2001, Theys, who had called himself the “Great Leader of the Papuan People”, was kidnapped by Kopassus (link in Bahasa Indonesia) and found dead. Seven soldiers from the Indonesian special forces were eventually convicted and jailed for a maximum of three-and-a-half years. In a comment indicative of the Indonesian military’s view of pro-independence activism in Papua, then-Army Chief of Staff Ryamizard Ryacudu—who is now Indonesia’s Minister for Defence—referred to the soldiers as “heroes”.)

Linus Hiluka - New Naratif
Linus Hiluka Basilius Triharyanto

On 23 March 2000, Linus raised the Morning Star flag in his front yard. The flag is a controversial symbol in West Papua—it was first banned in 1969. Although this ban was later temporarily softened to allow the Morning Star flag as a cultural symbol (as long as the Indonesian flag was flown higher than it), it has since been considered “separatist” in nature and prohibited once more. Security forces in Papua continue to use this ban as grounds to jail those who fly the flag for treason.

Linus’ decision to raise the flag was a pointed political statement that got him recognised as a pro-independence activist in his district. From then on, he was seen within his community as a voice for the political struggle for freedom.

Three years after Linus attended the Second Papuan People’s Congress, the authorities strongly suspected that the Kodim 1702 case had been perpetrated by people affiliated with the Free Papua Movement (OPM), an umbrella term for the independence movement in West Papua. Officers combed villages around Wamena and arrested a number of people, including Linus. They were accused of being involved in the raid on the weapons warehouse. Since Linus had been involved in the Congress, the authorities claimed that he should have been aware of OPM’s actions.

Members of the Army Strategic Command, or Kostrad, came to his home at one in the morning, Linus explains in a phone call with New Naratif. The soldiers didn’t hesitate to shoot.

“They shot into the window, shooting with a number of weapons, then I got up. My mother and all my family woke up. I wanted to go out but my family stopped me. If I had run away, my community would have been targeted. So, I went out. It was still dark. Troops holding torches arrested me,” he recalls. He was arrested at 4:30am.

“Then local residents started to gather in the yard, including a local pastor, and were told to crouch on the ground. My house was searched; the officers were looking for items from the raid on the weapons warehouse, but they only found the Morning Star flag, documents about our struggle, and nothing else.”

“If I had run away, my community would have been targeted”

Following the discovery of the Morning Star flag in his home, Linus was handcuffed, picked up by the state intelligence agency and transferred to the military district command centre. He was interrogated and accused of hiding bullets and weapons taken during the raid on the government armoury. But Linus insisted that he hadn’t been involved—a claim he continues to stand by today.

Jefri Wandikbo, an activist with the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), a non-violent organisation campaigning for a new referendum on self-determination, tells New Naratif that the security forces sometimes carry out sudden sweeps in which activists are arrested.

On 7 June 2008, Jefri was in a taxi with two leaders of the KNPB, Buchtar Tabuni and Assa Alua, when they realised they were being followed. The police were waiting, guns pointed, upon their arrival in Abepura. They had no other choice but to surrender. They were taken to the Papua Regional Police Headquarters.

“We were frisked, had our possessions searched, everything was checked. My bag, camera, my notebook, everything was taken, including some flash disks,” says Jefri.

With the benefit of hindsight, Jefri believes they had fallen into a trap. The situation in West Papua had been tense; the KNPB had led a number of demonstrations demanding a referendum in a number of regions. Rising conflict and violence followed, with shootings in several places—a common occurrence in West Papua where violence is provoked by unknown actors, throwing peaceful demonstrations into turmoil. Things came to a head with the shooting of a German citizen on Base G Beach in Sentani, Jayapura.

The shooter was never actually found, but the authorities blamed the KNPB anyway. The Papuan House of Representatives wrote to the KNPB, inviting them to a meeting to address the shootings. Also invited were the regional military commander, the regional police chief, and a number of NGOs. Buchtar Tabuni attended on KNPB’s behalf, but both the military commander and the police chief failed to show. The meeting was postponed until the following week.

“Assa Alua and I accompanied Buchtar Tabuni home because the meeting was cancelled. Apparently it was created to arrest us,” says Jefri.


Gustaf Kawer, a human rights attorney who represented Jefri, says the KNPB members’ cases involved gross human rights violations. “The police obstructed [their access to justice] by arresting, torturing and detaining them without following clear procedures,” Gustaf tells New Naratif via telephone.

“If the arrest procedure had followed the rule of law, these activists would have had rights to legal counsel, to family visits, healthcare, and visits from the clergy. All of this was denied,” says Gustaf.  

The men were interrogated without a lawyer present. “An interrogation, in accordance with our Criminal Procedure Code, must have a lawyer present if the possible charge has a penalty of over five years’ imprisonment. If the person concerned is unable to find a lawyer, the police must appoint a lawyer. They didn’t in this case,” he explains.

“At the time of the investigation, the police extorted a confession, and only then was the investigation room opened up, after a lawyer complained [about not being given access to his client]. In the process of the investigation, the actual detention time could have been quite short but it was made to last a lot longer, for months, until the allotted detention time was about to expire. Then the case was turned over to the prosecutor’s office. That part of the process also took a long time. At the trial there were things that were not proven but they were found guilty anyway.”

“The way they interrogated me was torture. I was tortured, beaten with rifle butts”

According to Gustaf, the police can force a confession through torture, beatings and various other methods. For Linus, this isn’t theoretical; he experienced it himself following his arrest.

“At 9am, I went into the special interrogation room [in the military district command centre]. I was interrogated from 9am that morning until 12pm. I was told to sit down, then doused with water until the floor was flooded, then questioned. The way they interrogated me was torture. I was tortured, beaten with rifle butts.”

The district head of Wamena and some pastors asked the military to transfer Linus to the police station. But when he arrived at the police station, he says the police chief refused to take him into their custody because of the condition he was in.

The police chief had been concerned that his case would be scrutinised, and would only accept him after the doctors carried out a complete health check to account for his deteriorating condition. Linus went back and forth between the police station and the hospital a couple of times.

“One week later, I was sent to ‘the Institute’ [an old prison in Wamena]. I was put in solitary confinement. It was a room from the Dutch era. The room was very dark, there was no light. A small room. One toilet. It was the worst place. I stayed for a month in that room. Then, I was put in a normal prison. I continued to be tortured there.” Linus says he was subjected to “light torture”, a reference to discriminatory practices used against some prisoners, such as giving them poor quality food and verbally abusing them.

After the police completed their investigation report, Linus’ case was transferred to the prosecutor’s office. He was charged and convicted of treason and conspiracy, and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Jefri also says he experienced violence and torture. He, Buchtar and Assa were all interrogated. Assa was later released, but Jefri was transferred to an isolation cell in Jayapura City Police Prison. Buchtar remained in the Papua Regional Police Headquarters.

“For about a month, I was held in solitary confinement. I slept on the floor, without a mat or anything. I was often sick, my entire body was cold,” says Jefri.

He was later transferred to a different cell, but still had yet to be convicted of any offence. He was prohibited from communicating with fellow inmates, even though he’d met other KNPB friends who’d also been arrested and detained.

“I was interrogated again, and they wrote the investigation report there. They forced me to confess to the shootings. We really hadn’t done them, but we were detained,” says Jefri.

Jefri says that, during his interrogation, he was stripped naked. His hands were tied to a chair, and his interrogators used a broom to press hard on his genitals. “It was very painful, it was not a good time, it made me scream,” he says.

“They did it so that we would say we did it. In the end the investigation report was written as if we had confessed. They wrote it as they pleased.”

One night, he was taken out of the prison. “They wrapped a black plastic bag around my head, then someone said, ‘Oh throw him in the sea for fish food.’ That was what really troubled my mental state. ‘Just shoot him.’ They pointed a gun at me,” he recalls.

“In the end the investigation report was written as if we had confessed. They wrote it as they pleased”

Jefri was charged with multiple offences, including having cassowary bones in his bag. (Cassowary bones are used to make traditional daggers in Papua and are considered a weapon by the police.) He was sentenced to 10 months in prison for that.

He was also accused of being involved in the murder of a motorcycle taxi driver in Waena in Jayapura on 22 May 2012. Even though he had an alibi—he’d been visiting his parents in Wamena in the highlands in Jayawijaya Regency at the time—he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. His multiple appeals were rejected.

But arrests often fail to dampen the fervour of politically vocal activists in Papua. For young Papuans, prisons are no longer haunting or frightening. In fact, it’s sometimes the opposite, as if arresting thousands of activists has actually fostered the courage of many young people and activists of the Papuan struggle.

In prison

Agus Kraar, a former civil servant in Papua Province, has been jailed twice—first for 20 days, and later for three years. He was first arrested for his part in a flag-raising on the anniversary of the proclamation of the Independence of Melanesia in West Papua. He was released after less than a month, as the authorities found that he’d only attended the event without any other involvement.

He was arrested for the second time at the Third Papuan People’s Congress in Abepura in 2011. He and four other detainees were charged with treason and sentenced to three years in prison.

Like other activists, Agus tells New Naratif that prison didn’t deter him from fighting for justice for the Papuan people. In fact, the experience taught him not just about prison life, but also the world.

Agus Kraar - New Naratif
Agus Kraar Basilius Triharyanto

“After I was imprisoned, I met a lot of people who were innocent but who were in jail. Not just political prisoners, but people charged with corruption or murder. After three years in prison I saw a lot of things. Prison shapes us and we reduce some of the negative things [about ourselves],” he explains.

“Especially for us freedom fighters, prison is waiting for us. We keep fighting but in the end we will go to prison. Because there’s no other place [for us]. There are only two scenarios. Be killed. Or go to prison.”

“Prison won’t limit us or have a deterrent effect. We will fight,” Agus adds. “If successful we will enjoy independence, but [even] if we die the struggle doesn’t die, [it] will live from generation to generation.”

“There are only two scenarios. Be killed. Or go to prison.”

Linus was locked up in Wamena Prison for about a year, after which he and five other political prisoners were suddenly transferred—without notice to even family members—to a maximum security prison in Makassar, Sulawesi, for three years. He says he was beaten and abused during the transfer.

Five of them were transferred back in January 2008 after strong pressure from friends and family who feared for their safety; the sixth prisoner had died in his cell. Despite the outcry that had led to their return to Papua, Linus says he continued to experience torture and violence. He served seven long years in prison before President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo granted him clemency in 2015.

Agus, though, had a far better experience in jail. “When I first went to Abepura prison, people said I’d be beaten, tortured. That’s the introduction to prison. But it apparently [wasn’t the case] for political prisoners, except for those who rape or steal. Now I see a different approach. Now no one is beaten, killed. Now it’s not scary.”

Agus was able to cultivate a garden in prison. He planted cassava, papaya and cabbage, and gave them to visitors. “They were happy. On their next visit, they brought clothes, books, toothpaste, soap, instant noodles. People on the outside helped,” he says.

A long incarceration

But what about political prisoners who remain behind bars for over a decade? How does one survive and still hold on to the fight?

Filep Karma, who has been described as “the best-known political prisoner in West Papua”, is one such person. He was convicted of treason and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment in 2005 for a 2004 ceremony involving the raising of the Morning Star flag. He spoke to New Naratif in Abepura Prison in Jayapura in June 2015. He was 55 years old at the time and had been in prison for over 10 years. He has since been released.

Admired and respected, Filep was known in prison for his quirky appearance: he often wore brown clothes, like a civil servant’s uniform, with an ID card-sized piece of paper pinned to his chest which had a picture of the Morning Star flag on it.

“I cook myself, with a stove made from a pierced can of condensed milk. I cook in a Khong Guan biscuit tin, cut in half, which is like a stove, topped with a stainless steel pot,” said Filep in 2015, explaining his routine in prison.

His cooked his own food, picking vegetables from his own garden. He planted gedi leaves (edible hibiscus) and cassava. Filep liked to eat boiled vegetables, without salt. If he wanted flavouring, he mixed them with instant noodles. “I eat like that every day,” he said.

Family and friends who visited would bring more delicious fare. “They bring fish, wam [pork]… They also brought me crocodile; it was delicious.”

Christmas was a special day. Filep celebrated Christmas with his friends with a stone-burning event, a Papuan tradition for people living in the mountains that involves cooking meat on a heated stone. The meat is seasoned and mixed with raw vegetable leaves. “I’m happy to be able to do activities here like I would outside. I see that other people are happy, so I’m happy. I can make other people smile, so I’m happy,” said Filep.

Gardening, cooking and watching television—for Filep, these activities helped him deal with living within the limits of the prison walls. Back in 2015, Filep revealed the secret staying sane while incarcerated: the trick was to change his thinking, and to see the prison as just a house.

“Don’t think of it as a prison. If you think this is a prison you will feel tortured. In the end you’ll have to move next door [to the mental hospital]. You have to think of yourself [as being] at home. Clean your room, decorate it according to your taste so you feel comfortable,” he said.

“You have to think of yourself [as being] at home. Clean your room, decorate it according to your taste so you feel comfortable”

Filep was active and creative in prison. He and fellow residents once held a training session on making photo frames with recycled newsprint—the attractive frames could then be sold to visitors. He also sold Tabloid Jubi, an independent newspaper founded by civil society organisations, whenever a new edition came out. He hoped his friends in prison would still follow the news in Papua.

On top of all that, Filep offered something unexpected: boxing lessons. These lessons were held with approval from the prison authorities. A boxing arena had even been built. He felt it was important to engage younger inmates: when he was sent to prison, he said, there were around a dozen other activists behind bars with him. Most of them had potential and talent, but lacked training.

Apart from the political prisoners, there were also inmates convicted of other crimes. “I motivate the younger inmates who were convicted of criminal cases, [and tell then] don’t come back here,” Filep said.

Jefri was one of the young activists who came under Filep’s wing. In 2014, he participated in the regional boxing championship in Sarmi, eight hours away from the prison. He won the bronze medal; other inmates won silver and gold. “Mr Filep saw that the youngsters who entered the prison had good potential, but there were no activities in the prison. The boxing arena was built so that after getting out of prison, they could be accepted by the community,” Jefri says.

“He knew the trainers in the 1980s and 1990s. He lobbied and sought approval from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. Finally, a coach was allowed to be brought in from outside, who came from Jayapura.”

Prison work

Jefri had been in prison for over a year when he was entrusted with a position as a security assistant to help maintain order. He started out as an ordinary member of the security team, but was promoted to head the team upon his colleague’s release. His daily duties included accompanying the prison guards when they opened or locked the blocks at the beginning and end of the day.

He was also given other work: he typed letters submitted to the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, as well as administrative documents such as attendance and prisoner lists.

He was willing to take on these roles, but says he remained an activist who refused to give in. He justified the work as a way to not to waste his time in prison.

But no matter how much work one has, loneliness, Jefri says, is an unavoidable part of prison life. When these moments struck, he would play the guitar and sing.

Life after prison

A week after he was freed from prison on 27 July 2014, Agus flew to Biak, a small island on the northern coast of Papua. He’d made the decision to return to live in his home village.

“I was happy to meet my family members. Many of them came to the house to meet me. To shake hands, hug, to let go of the feeling of missing each other,” he says.

“My life went back to normal. Every day, I went to the fields, and went fishing in the sea. I swam in the sea of the Pacific Ocean. There were waves breaking as I swam and [I] enjoyed God’s creation.”

He’s now 54 years old. He’s devoted half his life to the struggle for Papuan independence; now he sees the second half beginning.

“If I’m not looking for God, my life in this world will have been in vain,” he says. “Since I got out of prison, my main job has been to look for God. I go and worship in the church. I worship with my family.”

But it doesn’t mean that he’s given up. Instead, Agus sees his role as having evolved; he now works on bringing together groups in conflict, regardless of whether they are pro-independence or pro-Indonesia. He also provides space in his home for young Papuans from the highlands to study and become activists in their own right.

Filep Karma - New Naratif
Filep Karma during his travels in Germany. Filep Karma

Filep was released from Abepura Prison on 19 November 2015. He’s travelled extensively since. After celebrating his first Christmas with family in over 10 years, he travelled to Jakarta in 2016, participating in training sessions, meeting students from Java and Bali, and talking with human rights activists from various civil society organisations. He also visited the cities of Bandung, Semarang, Surabaya, Yogyakarta and Malang.

Even though he officially retired from work in September 2017, Filep keeps moving. He went to Geneva in 2017 to be part of Indonesia’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council. He’s also visited several countries in Europe to talk about human rights issues in West Papua, and met students in Germany who sent him postcards during his time in prison.

Linus returned to farming and working in the fields. He plants and sells cassava, water spinach, bananas and sweet potatoes to pay for his children’s schooling. He’s determined that all six of his offspring will become university graduates.

“Our lives had been destroyed for years. Sources of income were destroyed. So I want to restore this over a long period of time,” Linus says.

It’s not the only thing he needs to repair: his health has suffered as a result of the torture he experienced in prison. He’s rejected offers of financial assistance from the Jokowi administration as they came with strings: he would have been required to pledge allegiance to the Republic of Indonesia.

“We are political figures, and we enter [prison] because of the political case for the struggle for an independent Papua. Thus entering and leaving prison must complete that political process. Complete the struggle. Then we will return to our habitat, our duty to the community. So we won’t sign any conditions,” Linus says.

Jefri is now trying to run small businesses to regain economic independence. He owns a food stall and is struggling to complete the construction of four further stalls. He believes that activists should focus on building a strong financial foundation, as the struggle does not exist in a vacuum. “An activist’s financial situation must be strong first. For example, having a wife and child means you all must eat, find food,” he says.

“I don’t think I have to think about just politics, but also the economic movement. Like we have to have a business, like a kiosk, gardening, motorcycle taxi. The important thing is that we have an income every day,” says Jefri.

Jefri Wandikbo - New Naratif
Jefri Wandikbo in the shop he set up after his release. Basilius Triharyanto

It’s a very practical statement, one that might give an impression of an activist withdrawing from public life. But that would be a mistaken assumption. For Papua’s political prisoners, there is no quitting the struggle; they can only infuse the fight into every aspect of daily life.


Basilius Triharyanto

Basilius Triharyanto is a writer and editor. For the last few years, his work has focused on West Papua. He has written and edited several books related to human rights, history, and social issues. He now divides his time between Jakarta and Papua.

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