Friday, May 01, 2009

No sign of freedom for the Merauke Five

An article in yesterday’s Jakarta Post has confirmed that five Australians held in the Indonesian province of Papua will be detained until a Supreme Court verdict is handed down. The so-called “Merauke Five” have been detained since arriving in September last year and have been banned from leaving Papua province. The Post quoted the Head of Merauke Prosecutors' Office, Sudiro Husodo, who said the ban was issued by the Attorney General's Office (AGO) on April 2. The five remain stranded at Merauke’s airport where they have been staying since they were stopped from returning home seven weeks ago.

The five are William and Vera Scott-Bloxam, Keith Mortimer, Karen Burke and Hubert Hofer, all aged between 51 and 64. They are businesspeople involved in the tourist industry and live in Horn Island off the coast of far north Queensland. On 12 September last year they flew across the Torres Strait in a twin-piston P-68 aircraft piloted by William Scott-Bloxam. Their destination was Mopah airport one hour away in Merauke on Papua’s south coast. The plan was to stay for a long weekend under the mistaken belief they could get a visa on arrival.

The holiday quickly turned sour when the five were charged with illegally entering Indonesian territory. It didn’t help that Merauke is the centre of an insurgency of rebels who (unlike the Australian Government) have never accepted Indonesian’s illegal take over of West Papua in the 1960s. The five were initially accused of being spies and held at a community detention centre.

On 15 January the Merauke district court handed down its sentence. Pilot William Scott-Bloxam was sentenced to three years and fined 50 million rupiah (about $6,000 AUD) for flying a plane into Indonesia without security clearance. His four passengers were sentence to two years and fined 25 million rupiah. They appealed on the basis the court had ignored evidence which suggested the air crew had received verbal clearance to land. On 2 March, the five were released from prison on "humanitarian grounds" while lawyers prepared the appeal, but were still banned from leaving Merauke.

The appeal was heard by the Papuan High Court in Jayapura. This court overturned the sentences in March much to the disappointment of the Papua High Prosecution Office. The High Court ordered the five leave the country immediately by the same plane in which they arrived. However, the prosecution requested an appeal and called for a ban on the five leaving the country until the case is settled. The military then impounded their plane so that the High Court order could not be carried out. And because the case is now before the Indonesian Supreme Court, the five remain stuck indefinitely at the airport in Merauke.

According to Torres News publisher Mark Bousen, the affair has nothing to do with visa offences. Bousen has been in regular touch with the five since their detention. Writing in New Matilda in January, he said people are normally deported for visa offences not jailed. Bousen believed that the Indonesians are probably using the five either as trade bargaining chips or in revenge for the protection visas Australia issued to 43 West Papuan separatists in 2006. Bousen called it “a diplomatic power game between a paranoid, oppressive Indonesian Government and the latest in a succession of gutless Australian governments who, since 1963, have been afraid to take a stand against the brutality of our neighbours.”

Bousen said that at the start of the trial last year, the five were told they could expect a fine of about $4000 and to be sent home. One family member told Bousen that this outcome was agreed by prosecution, defence and judges alike. Then just before Christmas, authorities in Jakarta ordered the prosecution to seek the three-year jail term. Bousen berated the Department of Foreign Affairs for their “gutless” dealings with Indonesia on the matter. Bousen’s point seems valid. In February, the matter was raised in federal parliament and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith washed his hands of the matter saying “When an Australian citizen, an Australian national, comes into contact with the legal system of another country, there is a limit to what Australia can do.”

Smith made it clear in March just how limited his actions would be when he appeared on ABC’s Lateline. Smith claimed the five were not prisoners and said their status was now "city detention". According to Smith, this meant they could remain in Merauke pending the outcome of the Supreme Court appeal. “So they effectively have what is described as a licence to the city, but we are giving them consular assistance,” he said. This is craven. As Tony Jones said, at worst the five are guilty of stupidity and Australia should be doing more to get them home. Mark Bousen nails the problem well: “The Australian Government's seemingly endless lack of courage is compounded by an ineffectual Department of Foreign Affairs and the blatant lack of independence of the Indonesian judiciary.”

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