August 8, 2023
JAKARTA – Activists have accused the West Sumatra provincial administration and the police of being heavy-handed after a series of daily protests against a plan to build an oil refinery in the province ended last week with the arrest of more than a dozen protesters.
According to local media reports, protesters hailing from Air Bangis village, West Pasaman regency, were forcefully dispersed by local authorities on Saturday and were hauled into buses, taking them from the province’s capital of Padang back to their hometowns, located some 250 kilometers away.
The incident took place as a handful of demonstrators were meeting with the West Sumatra governor and representatives of key branches of local government at the governor’s office in Padang, also on Saturday.
Video clips circulating on social media showed police officers storming into the West Sumatra Grand Mosque, located within walking distance of the governor’s office, where most of the protesters, including women and children, were waiting on the results of the negotiations.
The protesters had been staging protests since Monday. They demanded that the West Sumatra administration engage them in dialogue and hear their concerns surrounding plans to build the oil refinery in Air Bangis and over a recent spate of land conflicts between oil palm farmers and the local administration.
According to a joint statement issued on Saturday by the Foundation of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (YLBHI), the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), and the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association (PBHI), at least 14 demonstrators were arrested by police.
“The police’s actions were clearly an abuse of power and a violation of human rights, since they deny the right to freedom of expression, despite it being mandated by our Constitution,” YLBHI said.
The rights groups demanded the West Sumatra Police immediately release the arrested demonstrators, while also calling on National Police chief Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo to launch an internal investigation into the incident.
Head of the Indonesian Ombudsman’s West Sumatra office, Yefri Heriani, criticized West Sumatra Governor Mahyeldi Ansharullah for his reluctance to meet with demonstrators.
“Regardless of whether or not he will grant the people’s demands [for the oil refinery project to be revoked], as governor, [Mahyeldi] should have met the people directly,” Yefri said on Sunday.
The Alliance of Independent Journalists’ (AJI) West Sumatra office, meanwhile, reported that at least four journalists were harassed and intimidated during the incident on Saturday.
The intimidation occurred at a time when violence against journalists remains rampant amid weak protection for press freedom and the issuance of laws that restrict civil liberties.
According to a 2022 AJI report, there were 61 attacks against journalists and media outlets last year, affecting 97 victims. The attacks ranged from digital attacks, gender-based violence and arrests, to criminalization and censorship. The report said that more than a third of the attacks were carried out by the police, the military or government officials.