Indonesian leader to free Papua political prisoners

JAYAPURA, Indonesia - Indonesian President Joko Widodo was expected to announce the release of several political prisoners in the restive eastern province of Papua Saturday, seeking to repair a rights record left in tatters by the recent execution of foreigners.

A group of men, convicted over a 2003 raid on an Indonesian military weapons arsenal, are set to walk free from a prison near Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, after being granted clemency by Widodo.

The move was due on a trip to Papua by the president, during which AFP was granted rare access to a province that has a heavy military and police presence and is largely shut off to foreign media.

Separatists in Papua have for decades fought a low-level insurgency against the central government, and dozens are in jail for committing treason for acts such as raising the separatist "Morning Star" flag and taking part in anti-government protests.

The release would mark a change in approach from previous governments. During the 10-year rule of previous president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, only one political prisoner in Papua was granted clemency, according to Human Rights Watch.

Widodo, who took office in October, has pledged to improve livelihoods in Papua, which remains deeply poor and underdeveloped compared to other parts of Indonesia despite its abundant natural resources.

However activists said releasing a handful of prisoners was not enough, and accused Widodo of seeking to burnish his image.

The president has faced a storm of international outrage since putting to death seven foreigners last week, with Australia withdrawing its ambassador over the execution of two of its citizens and the United Nations expressing deep regret.

Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the move was "more like image-making".

"It's a good step but it's nothing new," he said, calling on Widodo to go further by granting prisoners an amnesty. Prisoners have to request clemency and admit guilt before it is granted, unlike with an amnesty.

Some prisoners in Papua have repeatedly refused to seek clemency when invited to do so by the government.

There are still regular flare-ups of violence in Papua, where poorly-armed insurgents are fighting on behalf of the mostly ethnic Melanesian population.

Indonesian troops are regularly accused of abusing Papuan villagers in the name of anti-rebel operations, but Jakarta denies allegations of systematic human rights abuses.

Jakarta took control of Papua, which forms half of the island of New Guinea, in 1963 from former colonial power the Netherlands.