Retired Officer on Trial for ‘Crimes Against Humanity’

Activists 1

 Papuan activists protest the killing of teenagers in Enarotali, at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout in Jakarta, December 10, 2014. © 2014 ADEK BERRY/AFP via Getty Images


(Jakarta) – A rarely used Indonesian human rights court is putting a former army officer on trial for alleged crimes during a 2014 massacre in Papua, Human Rights Watch said today. Maj. (ret.) Isak Sattu alone is charged with crimes against humanity for the killing of five Papuans, including four teenagers, on December 8, 2014, in the town of Enarotali, Paniai regency, in Papua province.

The trial, which began on September 21, 2022, is an important opportunity to provide a measure of justice and compensation to the families of the victims. Prosecutor Errly Prima Putera Agoes charged Major Isak Sattu with four articles that contain penalties of between 10 and 25 years in prison. Chief Prosecutor Agoes read the indictment, saying that Major Sattu, as the Army commander in Paniai, committed crimes against humanity and failed in his command responsibility by not stopping his men from taking guns from the arsenal.

“The Indonesian authorities should not squander this important opportunity to finally hold someone accountable for crimes committed during the Paniai massacre,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This should be the start of further prosecutions of serious human rights abuses in Papua, and not a ‘one-off’ effort to close the book on Paniai.”

Indonesia’s human rights court, which was established under Law No. 26 of 2000, has been used very infrequently. The trial will not take place in Papua, but approximately 2,500 kilometers away in Makassar, on Sulawesi island, making it very difficult for witnesses and the families of victims to attend the trial. The authorities should make resources available to witnesses and family members who wish to go, Human Rights Watch said.

On December 8, 2014, Indonesian soldiers fired on about 800 Papuan protesters for approximately seven minutes in the public square in Enarotali, killing four teenagers – Simon Degei, 18; Otianus Gobai, 18; Alfius Youw, 17; and Yulian Yeimo, 17 – and wounding at least 17 to 21 others, including women and children. A fifth protester, Abia Gobay, died elsewhere under unclear circumstances.

It is not clear why Indonesian prosecutors decided to prosecute only one member of the military. Witnesses to the shooting have said that many soldiers were firing their guns when the people were hit.

The protest was sparked by a brawl on the evening of December 7, 2014, when members of Tim Khusus 753 (Special Team 753), a unit attached to the Nabire-based Army Battalion 753, assaulted 12-year-old Yulianus Yeimo. The attack was apparent retaliation after a group of children and teenagers, including Yeimo, shouted at a Tim Khusus 753 vehicle to turn on its headlights as it passed the group, whose members were decorating a Christmas tree and nativity scene in Enarotali’s Ipakiye neighborhood.

The Tim Khusus 753 vehicle soon returned with another truck filled with Indonesian soldiers, who chased the group and caught and beat Yeimo with their rifle butts. Yeimo had to be hospitalized.

Local residents reacted by organizing a peaceful protest in the Enarotali square, in front of the Indonesian military command office. The Indigenous Papuans performed their traditional waita dance, shouting, singing while holding ceremonial bows and arrows which have a purely ritual function, and moving in a circle, mimicking Papua’s famous birds of paradise. This dance is a common practice among the ethnic Mee people in Paniai when they are seeking attention from their leaders.

There has never been a clear explanation as to why the military used unnecessary lethal force against the protesters. International law permits the intentional lethal use of firearms only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. Soldiers did not use other less-lethal crowd control measures.

Two weeks later, when visiting Papua, President Joko Widodo promised that the military and police would conduct a full investigation. However, army chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo denied that soldiers shot the protesters. He stated instead that the gunfire came from a hilly area where no police or soldiers were stationed, implying that Papuan guerrilla fighters were responsible but providing no evidence to support that claim.

Gen. Nurmantyo also failed to explain how someone could shoot protesters on the field from a distance of at least five kilometers from Enarotali square. Nor did he provide a credible response to the numerous witnesses who said they saw the soldiers shoot at the protesters. The army chief’s statement apparently made it difficult for the police to secure cooperation from the military to question Indonesian soldiers about the shootings.

The army chief’s statement reflected the strong resistance among top military leaders to investigating the massacre properly. Indonesia’s justice system differentiates between military and civilian jurisdiction, and the 1997 Military Tribunal Law requires any trials of soldiers to be before a military tribunal. Military resistance has stymied police and prosecutors’ investigation and prosecution of the case. The military justice system lacks transparency, independence, and impartiality, and has often failed to properly investigate and prosecute alleged serious human rights abuses by Indonesian soldiers.

Families of four of the people killed have questioned why prosecutors have only brought a single suspect to trial. While the authorities have provided no explanation, a number of observers believe the National Police waited to prosecute a retired army officer, who is now considered a civilian and therefore subject to proceedings in a civilian, not military, court.

“Many Indigenous Papuan families and witnesses have said they will boycott the trial because they don’t believe the proceedings will be independent or fair,” Robertson said. “The court will need to prove itself capable of dispensing justice fairly to counteract the decades of distrust that many Papuans have toward Indonesia’s justice system.”

Indonesia’s Human Rights Court Law establishes the human rights court specifically to try only two crimes: genocide and crimes against humanity. Under the law, the court appoints five judges to preside over the trial, including three ad hoc judges lawyers who must apply to be on a human rights panel, and two career judges from the district court that hosts the trial.

Over the past two decades, Human Rights Watch has documented many cases of human rights violations in Papua. Indigenous Papuans experience arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings as well as sexual and gender-based violence. Foreign journalists and international rights monitors have been restricted from visiting Papua since 1967.

Indigenous Papuans face the underlying problem of discrimination and racism from Indonesian authorities – soldiers, police, government officials, judges – and the resulting rights abuses and culture of impunity that protects those responsible. Many Papuans have protested the abuses that they suffered and, in some cases, called for political change.

The government frequently arrests and prosecutes Papuan protesters for peacefully advocating independence or making other demands, further abusing rights, and deepening the cycle of repression. To break that cycle, Indonesia should open Papua to international media and monitors, allow investigations of current and past abuses, and hold those responsible for abuse accountable, Human Rights Watch said.

“The actions of Indonesia’s military, not just one retired officer, will be on trial, and the government’s response is crucial,” Robertson said. “The hearings should be transparent, open to the public, and widely broadcast. The victims of the Paniai massacre and their families have long been waiting for justice.”