Hours before he was bludgeoned into a coma, Yulianus Yeimo was singing worship songs at a bonfire in 2014. Christmas was still several weeks away, but the festivities began early in Paniai, a region within Indonesia’s Central Papua province.
Suddenly a motorcycle reportedly driven by two members of Indonesian special forces sped past the gathering. The interruption led the 15-year-old Yeimo and his friends to warn the soldiers to be more careful and turn on their headlights to avoid potholes.
“We’ll fight later, wait here…” the offended soldiers shouted back, according to a report from government human rights investigators.
Within hours, a larger group of soldiers returned, viciously beating Yeimo on the head with their rifles until he went comatose. He later died.
The next morning, hundreds of outraged indigenous Papuans from Enarotali town responded to the attack by blockading a road and chasing security forces, eventually converging at the town square.
Surrounded by military and police, the Papuans, wearing face paint and carrying prop bows and arrows, performed a traditional waita dance mimicking bird song to express their anger. Some in the crowd began throwing stones.
Security forces opened fire into the crowd, injuring more than a dozen people and killing at least four young men aged eighteen years old and younger.
“The kids were not at fault,” said Yones Douw, a Papuan human rights investigator for the NGO Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy, who interviewed eyewitnesses within minutes of the shootings. “A lot of community members saw what happened that day. When people are getting shot, they can see who is shooting them.”
Eight years later, the Paniai massacre is on track to become the first case in nearly two decades to be heard in Indonesia’s permanent Human Rights Court. A trial is scheduled for September, a Supreme Court spokesperson told The Jakarta Post.
“If it goes ahead, I think that in itself would be extremely remarkable, because the human rights courts have not operated…” said Ken Setiawan, a social-legal scholar at the University of Melbourne. “They’ve until now basically only existed in name.”
The court last saw a trial in 2004, when security forces accused of murdering indigenous Papuans in Abepura were ultimately acquitted.
The Paniai massacre occurred shortly after President Joko Widodo’s inauguration. The dark event attained symbolic importance for his administration and received international media attention.
President Widodo vowed to bring peace to Indonesia’s Papua, a destabilised region where Indonesian security forces and local separatist groups have been in violent conflict. For decades, indigenous Papuans have alleged that Indonesian security forces have murdered and abused civilians accused of being separatists. Some say officers have commited acts of torture, including burning genitals with cigarettes.
In a Christmas speech delivered to a crowded stadium in one of Papua’s largest cities, Widodo declared he would deliver justice for the Paniai victims.
“I want this case resolved as soon as possible, so it will not happen again in the future,” he said.
Despite Widodo’s promise, it took until May this year for the Indonesian Attorney General’s Office to appoint prosecutors to the case.
Human rights groups say the delay and decision to charge just one perpetrator deepened their doubts about the government’s sincerity in responding to alleged military abuses.
“The government wants to look good, and that’s why he [Widodo] put all his efforts and interest into this case,” said Emanuel Gobay, director of the Jayapura Legal Aid Institute in Papua. “The fact is, the government is only doing it half-heartedly. They are not really working earnestly in solving the case.”
In a June statement this year, the families of the murdered Paniai boys and other community members urged the prosecution to investigate more suspects in the case, including high-level officials who they believe ordered lethal force.
In August, the victims’ families announced they will not participate in the trial, which will take place outside of Papua. They say the Attorney General’s Office has not included them in the case.
“Don’t make us second-class citizens in this Republic, because the Indonesian government is not serious, has no intention of resolving Paniai’s gross human rights violations,” the families and their supporters said in the June letter.
Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission, known as Komnas HAM, is the agency tasked with holding government and security forces accountable for human rights abuses. Arising in the midst of the authoritarian, Suharto-led New Order regime in 1993, the Commission’s mandate has been politically fraught, even after receiving expanded powers following the country’s transition to democracy in 1998.
Natalius Pigai, a now retired National Human Rights Commissioner, initially led the investigation into the Paniai killings. He said his team found credible evidence that at least four different branches of Indonesian security forces were involved in the killings, including army infantry and air force officers.
The evidence also included videos of military personnel carrying assault rifles, eyewitness testimony, and internal communications up the chain of command.
Yet only one retired Indonesian military officer, a liason at the Paniai Military District Command (Kodim), identified by prosecutors with the initials I.S, faces charges. There should be at least 13 perpetrators based on available evidence, according to Amnesty International. The Commission had classified the case as a “gross human rights violation,” meaning there is evidence showing systemic abuses against civilians.
The Commission and the Attorney General’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.
“One person being charged is not following the facts,” Pigai said. “I am telling you as the leader of the report. Because the actors involved are the Indonesian leaders…and in our report, we write their names and positions.”
The Indonesian military at the time was under the command of President Widodo’s now Chief of Staff Moeldoko, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name. The Commission has urged the Attorney General’s Office to examine his potential role. Under Indonesian human rights law, commanders are responsible for the consequences of their subordinates’ actions if they are aware of abuses, said Wirya Adiwena, Amnesty International Indonesia’s deputy director.
We have too many cases that should be declared as serious human rights violations”Andreas Harsono, Indonesia Researcher, Human Rights Watch
Coordinated efforts to eliminate armed separatist groups led to joint-command operations between police and military, and security forces had classified Paniai as a vulnerable “red zone” for separatist activity, the Commission report stated.
The Indonesian government has justified intensive military operations in Papua to clamp down on armed separatist groups, whose activities accelerated when Indonesia annexed Papua in 1969.
Security forces are responsible for at least 178 civilian deaths in Papua since 2010, according to a July 2022 report from Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta-based think tank. The killings were often due to “large-scale military operations in heavily populated areas,” the report highlighted.
Instead, the report urged the government to focus on “ending impunity for past abuses and preventing future harm against civilians” by prioritising human rights investigations.
Investigations rarely occur and perpetrators are almost never officially punished, despite dozens of killings of indigenous Papuans by the Indonesian military since 2010, Amnesty International documented in a 2018 report.
Alleged abuses are typically handled in military tribunals, a system which “lacks transparency, independence, and impartiality, and has failed to properly investigate and prosecute alleged serious human rights abuses” according to Human Rights Watch.
Crimes classified as severe are handled by civilian-led human rights courts. All perpetrators in previous cases to reach these courts were eventually acquitted.
“We have too many cases that should be declared as serious human rights violations,” said Indonesia Researcher at Human Rights Watch, Andreas Harsono. “The last three human rights trials were such a disappointment in Indonesia.”
Indonesia’s human rights bureaucracy remains stifled as democratic norms have regressed throughout Widodo’s presidency in the last eight years, argues Natalie Sambhi, a Brookings Institute scholar, pointing to the military’s increasing political influence under Widodo.
Former military leaders in the New Order regime now hold key government positions, such as former lieutenant general turned Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto. Military officials have often refused to cooperate in sharing evidence with investigators or making subordinates available for questioning.
Even when strong evidence is provided in a particular case, there is a “lack of political will” from the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute alleged perpetrators, according to Adiwena.
“The Attorney General’s office will often refuse to go forward, citing a lack of evidence, but in reality there is little desire to find any evidence,” Adiwena said.
Though the Attorney General’s Office is preparing the Paniai case for trial, the victims’ families have disavowed the prosecution’s limited scope.
There have been informal attempts to settle the matter outside the publicity of the courts. The fathers of the murdered boys have been reportedly offered money to stay quiet, but they have refused these offers, said Douw, the Papuan rights investigator. Instead, the families await the outcome of the trial.
“With money, it is like they can buy people again, but they are already gone and there is no point, they will not accept it,” Douw said. “For them, the important thing is the trial process. But there is no justice in it.”