MERAUKE, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia’s president on Sunday announced the lifting of a travel ban for foreign journalists to the country’s easternmost province, a day after freeing five Papuan political prisoners, part of government efforts to improve human rights in Papua.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who took office in October, has vowed to improve human rights and economic conditions in Papua, where a low-level insurgency for independence has persisted since the region was transferred from Dutch to Indonesian rule in 1963.
Jokowi announced during his three-day visit to the province that the government was lifting a restriction for foreign journalists to Papua as part of his administration’s efforts to stop decades of abuses by Indonesia’s military and the stigma of a separatist conflict.
“Starting today, we allow foreign journalists to go freely to Papua, as well as to other Indonesian provinces,” he told reporters in Papua’s Merauke district. “It’s time that we should think positively. There must be mutual trust that we’ve lost.”
On Saturday, Jokowi released five Papuan political prisoners. The men were serving jail sentences ranging from 19 years to life for an attack on a military arsenal in 2003 that killed two army soldiers.
Indonesia, a nation of about 240 million people, has made tremendous strides toward democracy since former dictator Suharto was ousted in 1998, but it remains highly sensitive to ongoing separatist struggles in Papua and the Molucca islands.
The government has restricted visits by human rights workers and journalists to Papua, and pro-independence activists have been given lengthy prison terms for peacefully expressing their views, organizing rallies or for simply raising separatist flags.
Two French television journalists were sentenced to 2 1/2 months in jail last year for illegal reporting in Papua.
There are at least 100 political prisoners in Indonesia, most in Papua province and the Molucca islands, many of whom complain of being tortured or psychologically abused by guards.
In 2010, two political prisoners were freed after then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono granted them clemency. They were jailed for raising the banned flag and involvement in a violent pro-independence rally.
Twenty-six prisoners convicted of treason in Papua have rejected a proposed plan to be freed under a government amnesty program, arguing that leaving jail would amount to admitting guilt for crimes they didn’t commit.
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