Indonesia: Protests against prison conditions during COVID-19

On March 13, the Indonesian government issued a Presidential Decree regarding the Establishment of the Task Force for the Acceleration of COVID-19, but it was not until March 30 that the President Joko Widodo announced the Large-Scale Social Restriction (Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar – PSBB), while refusing to impose a lockdown. Indonesian civil rights organizations including KontraS, a member of INCLO, have raised their concerns regarding the response that they say has been led by individuals with no medical expertise, could lead to privacy of violations, and the use of criminal charges against government critics. On April 4, the National Police issued a telegram Letter by the Chief of Police No. ST/1100/IV/HUK.7.1./2020 referring to arrests and criminal charges against people who had allegedly defamed the President, a criminal offense that was overruled by the Constitutional Court in 2007. 

Since the start of the pandemic, protests in several prisons have brought to light the ongoing issue of overcrowding and poor hygiene conditions.  On April 12, after one guard tested positive, prison inmates at Tuminting Prison in Manado protested and set buildings on fire to draw attention to over-crowded conditions and health risks. Hundreds of police and soldiers responded with live ammunition, hitting at least one inmate in the chest. The Manado police chief stated that he did not know why prisoners were protesting, while government officials said they would consider freeing certain prisoners, but not those serving sentences for drug charges. 

Meanwhile, students, activists and experts worry that the government will take advantage of the pandemic to advance a legislative agenda that led tens of thousands to protest in September 2019. Planned rallies were cancelled due to restrictions on mass gatherings, but human rights activists have continued to hold the Kamisan weekly silent protests on Twitter and Instagram. Concerns have also been raised by activists about the escalation of land disputes during the pandemic which led to two farmers being killed after clashing with private security contractors from the palm oil firm PT Artha Prigel. 

Pic: Dhoni Setiawan/ The Jakarta Post
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