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The imprisonment of a Polish national in a remote jail in West Papua has been met with virtual silence from his country, the media and the Australian government. By John Martinkus.

Stranded in a West Papuan jail

A man with long hair and a beard behind bars. A crowd is gathered around his cell.
Polish national Jakub Skrzypski appears in an Indonesian court in West Papua.
Credit: Supplied

As anyone who has ever visited West Papua knows, you can barely leave the airport before someone starts talking about independence.

It could be the guy at customs, the cab driver, the bloke who sells you a coffee.

Everybody talks about it because they rarely meet foreigners. They rarely meet foreigners because foreigners are banned, unless they are “tourists”.

That is exactly why Polish national Jakub Skrzypski is now in a jail in Wamena.

Skrzypski was in the highlands on a tourist visa. He started talking to locals, as you do. The topic of independence came up. Quickly, he was arrested by Indonesian security forces.

In 2019, Skrzypski was given a five-year sentence for treason, later extended to seven. He is the first foreigner to be imprisoned on the charge. The European parliament recognises him as a political prisoner. Indonesia has ignored requests for him to be returned to Poland. He is still in jail.

Skrzypski’s crime was apparently beefed up by the Indonesian press to include a claim he was involved in a plot to smuggle arms to the pro-independence fighters of the Free Papua Movement (OPM-TPNPB), who are still fighting in the mountains of West Papua against the Indonesian forces that took over their country in 1963.

The trial was held in Wamena, and Skrzypski was not allowed meaningful contact with his lawyer or the Polish embassy in Jakarta. The Indonesian military denied them access to the highland town, as they do to the United Nations, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Red Cross and journalists.

Occasionally, Skrzypski has access to a phone and will send me photos and messages. A few weeks ago, the Indonesian guards got drunk and threatened to kill him. He was worried they might. There was some kind of ruckus going on between the Papuan prisoners and the Indonesians. The jail is extremely remote.

In the course of our messages, Skrzypski tells me he has seven points he would like to make. The first is about what he was doing in West Papua. He was there without a defined purpose: just a curious person, looking around. “I thought maybe I would publish a series of articles, a travel book, or even an amateur documentary.”

The second point Skrzypski wants to make is about his arrest. He was arrested while travelling with a man, Edo Wandik, who was released shortly afterwards.

Another man, Simon Magal, was attached to the case later. Magal spoke to Skrzypski about guns. I know from being in West Papua years ago that people always ask you for guns. Back in the early 2000s, when journalists were briefly allowed to go there, I was always asked, “What is the point of your stories? We need guns.” Of course, I told them I couldn’t help. Skrzypski says he didn’t believe Magal was serious.

“He sent me a request for firearms via FB [Facebook], after innocent conversations on other topics,” Skrzypski writes. “I only gave him a vague answer and forgot about the matter as the guy didn’t seem dangerous to me. Later on, he told me that it was a joke. But the police took it very seriously.”

Skrzypski’s third point is this: “I’ve never been ... in possession of any weapons or ammo, let alone being caught with or intending anything. All such infos are Indonesia’s confabulations.”

The fourth point he makes is that he lives in Switzerland. He hasn’t visited Poland since 2009. This is relevant to his access to consular assistance.

The fifth point is he accepts that when he was arrested “police genuinely might have been thinking they just came about some serious thing and they made a buzz in the media”. He says that when it was clear this was not the case, they couldn’t back down. “Soon they saw they had nothing,” he says. “Afraid of losing face, they decided to push the matter by any means necessary.”

The sixth point is about the trial in Wamena. He says this and the length of the sentence were both unusual and excessive. “I’ve been sentenced with no proper proof.”

His final point is there has been an absence of interest and diplomacy surrounding his case. “Pure denialism, to this very day,” he says. “Virtually no interest from journalists, especially the foreign.”

Skrzypski is handling the situation well and seems to be in good spirits. The silence on his incarceration frustrates him, however. He points out that other “tourists” in similar situations have simply been deported, whereas he was jailed and no one says a thing.

I called the Polish embassy in Canberra and was told they couldn’t comment. They told me to call Jakarta, which I did. Jakarta said they couldn’t comment and referred me to Warsaw foreign affairs. They said they were busy: they told me they had their hands full dealing with the war in Ukraine and didn’t have time for this one citizen on the other side of the world.

There are some Papuans trying to help him. Fellow detainees also on spurious charges of separatism, which is now being labelled by the Indonesian authorities as terrorism, seem to be giving him some support.

Skrzypski’s own government seems unable to help him. The Indonesian government will not let the Polish consulate have access to him. They won’t let anyone from the UN or aid organisations visit. He is totally isolated. The Australian government is also silent.

The Cold War priorities of keeping Indonesia out of the communist camp meant United States president John F. Kennedy persuaded the Dutch to abandon their hopes of forming a free and independent West Papua when they withdrew from the region in the 1960s. The rest is history.

The Dutch left and the Indonesians came in, taking control of the largest goldmine in the world and proceeding to suppress and subjugate the local population. Australia said nothing, in line with the US alliance. That is one reason we don’t hear about Jakub Skrzypski in prison now.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 5, 2023 as "Stranded in a West Papua jail".

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