French journalists go on trial in Indonesia’s Papua

Indonesia is deeply sensitive about Papua, where an insurgency has simmered for decades

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Two French journalists went on trial in Indonesia’s Papua on Monday accused of breaching visa regulations by illegally reporting on its separatist movement, a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

Thomas Dandois, 40, and Valentine Bourrat, 29, were detained at the start of August while making a documentary for Franco-German television channel Arte.

They went on trial in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, charged with breaking immigration laws since they had tourist, not journalist, visas. A prosecutor said they had admitted reporting while in Papua.

Indonesia is deeply sensitive about journalists covering Papua, where a low-level insurgency against the central government has simmered for decades, and rarely grants visas for foreigners to report independently in the region.

Foreign reporters detained for illegal reporting in Papua have in the past been swiftly deported. However Dandois and Bourrat have already been in custody for more than two months, and if found guilty may face lengthy jail terms.

Prosecutor Sukanda told the court the pair had entered Papua using tourist visas but had interviewed a separatist leader and reported on the activities of “an armed criminal group”, the term typically used by authorities when referring to separatists.

“The accused were aware or knew that they were not allowed to use a tourist visa to carry out journalistic activities in Indonesia, and that they needed a journalistic permit... from the Indonesian government,” said Sukanda, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

“Both have admitted to having carried out reporting in Papua to find out more about its society, customs, culture and history and also to find out why armed civilians were fighting against the government,” he added.

Dandois was detained at a hotel in the city of Wamena with members of separatist group the Free Papua Movement (OPM), and Bourrat was detained shortly afterwards, according to authorities.

The OPM has been at the forefront of the fight against the central government in the resource-rich but poor and ethnically Melanesian region.

The French journalists declined to speak to reporters at the court.

Their lawyer Aristo Pangaribuan said the charge was only two pages long and “not serious”, adding he hoped the pair would be deported soon.

Bourrat’s mother Martine Bourrat was in court for the start of the trial, and told reporters: “I really hope my daughter can return home as soon as possible.”

Chief judge Martinus Bala told reporters he hoped the verdict would be delivered on Friday.

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