Free Filep Karma

Guest writr Steven Katsineris with a piece on a West Papuan political prisoner, Filep Karma, which was written in November 2013. Steven Katsineris is an Australian free-lance writer of articles on Palestine, Cyprus and the rest of the Middle East region, political prisoners and human rights, environmental and social issues. He has been actively involved in the Palestine solidarity movement for over forty years. Steven lives with his family in Melbourne, Australia.


Filep Karma, 54, is a prominent West Papuan independence activist and long-term political prisoner. He is imprisoned for his non-violent political activities in the struggle for self-determination of West Papua. In 2004, Filep organized and participated in a Morning Star flag raising ceremony to celebrate the anniversary of the Papuan declaration of independence from Dutch rule in 1961. This last defiant exploit led to him being sentenced to 15 years in prison on treason charges. The Morning Star flag is illegal in Indonesia and those Papuans daring to raise it are subject to arrest, beatings and jail terms. Many other West Papuans have been killed for this simple act of civil disobedience.

Filep Karma was born in the town of Biak, the main urban centre and district capital on the island of Biak, which is a small island off the north coast of West Papua. Biak is the largest island of the Schouten group of islands. Like his father he became a civil servant. Filep is married and has two daughters.

Raising the Morning Star and the Biak Massacre

Obviously, the people of West Papua have suffered under Indonesian military repression for decades and there have been many instances of cruelty and killing of Papuans. But the number of people killed in Biak was significant, but also the manner in which they were killed. -  Ed Mc Williams.

In the 1990s Filep Karma started to become politically involved in the Papuan freedom struggle and by 1998, he was actively advocating for independence for West Papua. On July 2, 1998, he led a pro-independence rally in Biak where they raised the Papuan Morning Star flag on a water tower. The Morning Star flag is a symbol of Papuan identity, but is seen as traitorous by Indonesia. Initially some 75 protestors gathered beneath it, but the as the demonstration continued more joined in, reportedly growing to over 500 people. Some sources reported up to 1,000 people. The demonstrators demanded an end to military repression, respect for their basic human rights and for Papuan self-determination. On July 6, after three days of the flag flying and with Filep Karma boldly standing under it making freedom speeches, the Indonesian military violently attacked and fired on the crowd of peaceful protestors. It is thought that 24 civilians were killed on the spot at the protest site, while others escaped, but died later in hospital or elsewhere in the town. Some people who fled the scene to nearby houses to hide were shot there. About 100 people were reportedly wounded.

An estimated 'over 200' people were arrested and taken to the police station. Later, 139 of these detainees were transferred to the two Indonesian warships in the harbor, where they were tortured, raped and killed and then later thrown into the sea. During the next few weeks the mutilated bodies of thirty–five bodies of men, women and children washed up on the island’s beaches, many with their hands tied behind their backs. More bodies washed up on Biak’s shores or were caught in fishing nets over time. Human Rights Watch stated that eventually 70 bodies washed up. They were taken away by the Indonesian security forces and it is believed were buried on other islands.

Though an exact death toll is unknown, it is thought that an estimated 200 West Papuans were killed and many others injured. While several more detained protestors disappeared and are assumed dead. The Indonesian militarily claimed only one protestor died. This brutal attack became known as the Biak Massacre.

An American anthropologist, Eben Kirksey, who was in Biak at the time witnessed the assault and reported seeing trucks laden with many dead and dying people. He also saw Filep Karma shot in the legs and detained. Other locals also said about 139 people or their bodies were put in trucks and taken to two navy ships and later dumped at sea.

Little detailed information has come out about this awful event, due to suppression by Indonesian authorities. But then political counselor at the US Embassy in Jakarta Ed Mc Williams, who visited Biak a few days after the massacre, firmly believes the death toll to be in the hundreds. According to survivors and other witnesses, scores of people were killed on that day. 

Filep Karma was shot with rubber bullets in both legs and arrested. He was later sentenced to 6 and half years in prison for taking part in the protest rally and the flag raising incident. Filep was released in 2000, after a successful appeal against his jail sentence after serving two years.

Raising the Morning Star Again

On December 1, 2004, Filep Karma took part in another flag-raising ceremony with other Papuan activists. The 200 demonstrators had peacefully assembled and raised the Morning Star flag in Jayapura, on the anniversary of the Papuan declaration of freedom from the Dutch colonialist administration. The Indonesian police attacked the protest and tried to pull down the flag. Clashes broke out and people in the crowd were shot and beaten. Filep and several others were arrested. For this action Filep was sentenced in 2005 to 15 years in prison on charges of treason.

International Support for the Release of Filep Karma Grows

As the daughter of Filep Karma, I am saddened and disappointed at the government for the severe punishment imposed on my father…To date there are more than 70 political prisoners in Papua. Like my father, they voice their political aspirations peacefully, without violence…I implore President SBY to instruct the government to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners in Papua - Appeal by Audryne Karma.

Amnesty International considers Filep Karma as a prisoner of conscience because of his non-violent human rights actions and Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and East Timor and Indonesia Network (ETAN) have actively campaigned for his release. In August 2008, 40 members of the US Congress sent a letter to Indonesia calling for the release of Filep Karma.

Freedom Now executive director, Maran Turner stated that:

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found Indonesia’s actions a clear violation of international law. Mr. Karma is a non-violent advocate who was arrested for his views and convicted in a trial marred by judicial bias, denial of appeal without reason and intimidation tactics.

Indonesia’s detention of Filep Karma violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty that Indonesia is bound by, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While in prison Filep has been regularly subjected to abuse and denial of medical treatment. Please do what you can to urge Indonesia to respect the fundamental human rights of Filep Karma and other West Papuan political prisoners held in its jails. Join the campaign for the immediate and unconditional release of Filep Karma and all other prisoners of conscience in West Papua. Do not let Indonesia silence this strong and articulate voice for Papuan freedom of expression and civil and human rights. Filep Karma is a symbol of his long suffering people’s hopes for a brighter future, in an independent and free West Papua.

What you can do to help Filep Karma

Write to the Indonesian Embassy and appeal for the release of Filep Karma. The fact that people outside Indonesia know about Filep Karma and are concerned enough to bring up the matter is in itself a potent act. That people throughout the world are aware of the situation inside West Papua will help put subtle pressure on Indonesia to improve the treatment of Filep Karma and the rest of the West Papuan political prisoners languishing in jail. And highlighting the plight of Filep Karma is the best way to safeguard his welfare and perhaps compel his early release.

Sign the ETAN (East Timor and Indonesia Network) petition.

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