By Kate Lamb and Ananda Teresia
JAKARTA (Reuters) – An Indonesian court began a trial on Wednesday that will examine whether a former army commander committed “crimes against humanity” over the fatal shooting of four teenagers in the country’s easternmost region of Papua in 2014.
The trial, which is being run by a division of the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) tasked with investigating human rights violations, has been welcomed by activists as a positive step in a restive area where security forces have been accused of abuses.
The retired commander, Isak Sattu, was being charged with crimes against humanity, including serious human rights violations, Ketut Sumedana, an AGO spokesperson, said.
Isak’s lawyer said his client denied the charges.
The case relates to an incident in the Papuan district of Paniai in 2014 when security forces are alleged to have opened fire on a crowd, killing four and injuring 17, after local people gathered to protest against the beating a child.
A statement from the prosecutor outlining the case said the defendant knew, or should have known, that troops under his effective command had “committed serious human rights violations by launching a wide and systematic attack”.
“The defendant did not take appropriate and necessary actions within the scope of his power to prevent or stop the crimes,” added the statement, which was posted on the website of the Makassar district court, where the trial is being held.
President Joko Widodo, who is widely known as Jokowi, has pledged to improve development in impoverished Papua and visited the region months after his election in 2014 and promised justice to the people of Paniai.
There has been a heavy security presence in Papua, where separatists have waged a low-level campaign for independence for decades. Separatists say a 1969 vote overseen by the United Nations that brought the former Dutch colony under Jakarta’s control was illegitimate.
Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia, welcomed the government using the human rights court.
“Especially on Papua, it is very important for the government to bring the perpetrators of mass atrocities, of major human rights abuses, to justice, and this is one of the first tests for the Jokowi administration.”
The trial will resume on Sept. 28. If found guilty, Isak could face a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison.
(Reporting by Ananda Teresia in Jakarta and Kate Lamb in Sydney; Additional Reporting by Stanley Widianto in Jakarta; Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Ed Davies and Alex Richardson)