Indonesia frees prisoners and lifts media curbs in Papua

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo shakes hands with freed Papuan political prisoners in the restive eastern province of Papua on 9 May 2015.Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The political prisoners were granted clemency during the president's second visit to Papua

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has ordered the release of five political prisoners in Papua province - home to a long-running separatist campaign.

He also announced the lifting of travel bans for foreign journalists there.

"We need to create a sense of peace in Papua. This is just the beginning," Mr Widodo said, on a visit to the area.

Rights group have criticised Indonesia for its tough policies in Papua, where dozens have been jailed for simply raising the local flag of independence.

A low-level guerrilla organisation called the Free Papua Movement has been fighting a secessionist battle ever since Dutch colonial rule formerly ended there in 1962.

The recent developments suggest a change in policy for the government of Joko Widodo towards the region.

Analysis: Alice Budisatrijo, South East Asia producer

Joko Widodo promised to pay special attention to Indonesia's restive Papua region as soon as he took office last year.

In his second visit as president, he is trying to show that he will deliver not only economic development, but also political solutions.

Many Papuans viewed the travel restrictions for foreigners to their provinces as a way to allow the police and the military, the target of much public scorn, to operate with impunity.

While some people have applauded the decisions to release political prisoners and lift the travel ban as a step in the right direction, others remain suspicious of the government's intentions.

The five men granted clemency were convicted over a 2003 raid on an Indonesian military arms depot.

Mr Widodo met and shook hands with each of the men on Saturday, before handing them a letter confirming that the rest of their sentences had been waived, the AFP news agency reports.

"Today we are releasing these five detainees to stop the stigma of conflict in Papua," the president told reporters, speaking in the city of Jayapura.

It comes weeks after Indonesia's move to execute seven foreigners and one Indonesian national, who were convicted of drug offences, sparked international outrage.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Australians Andrew Chan (left) and Myuran Sukumaran - two of the seven foreigners executed

Australia recalled its ambassador to Jakarta after two of its citizens, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were among the men executed by firing squad.

Joko Widodo, who took office in October last year, had ignored worldwide calls for the convicted prisoners to be spared.

Touching on the subject on Saturday, he told journalists that the death penalty was "still our positive law".

Papua sees regular flare-ups of violence. Thousands of Papuans have been killed in attacks and skirmishes with the Indonesian military over the last four decades.

Access to the region has been severely restricted to foreign journalists and international organisations over the years.