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By R.K. Nugroho

JAYAPURA, Indonesia (March 5, 2002 - The Jakarta Post/Kabar-Irian)---A district court in the easternmost province of Papua acquitted on Monday three pro-independence leaders of the Papua Presidium Council, who had been tried on charges of subversion.

The three, Papua Presidium moderator Reverend Herman Awom, member Don Al Flassy and secretary general Thaha Al Hamid, were greeted by a hundred supporters outside the Jayapura District Court after the acquittal.

Council deputy chairman Tom Beanal, who is also chairman of the Papuan Communal Council replacing the late Theys Eluay, welcomed them by giving them stone axes and bracelets.

"This is our traditional way of expressing our thanks," he said, adding that the verdicts indicated that the Papuans would be granted freedom to express their opinion and feelings.

The three and the other two -- Theys and John Mambor – were charged with subversion over the holding of a Papua People's Congress in May and June 2000, which ended with a statement affirming Papua's independence.

The case against Theys was dropped following his death in mid-November. Meanwhile, John Mambor is currently ill in the hospital.

Prosecutors had demanded the court sentence the three to 2.5 years in jail -- far lower than the minimum of 20 years in jail, as demanded by article 106 of the criminal code.

Presiding judge Edward Sinaga, who read the verdict, contended that the three could not be sentenced to imprisonment because they had organized the congress with the full knowledge and support of the local and central governments.

Then president Abdurrahman Wahid himself gave the organizers Rp 1 billion (US$ 98,000) to help finance the congress, the judge said.

The court summoned Abdurrahman to testify before the court, but he failed to answer the summons.

Monday's court session, attended by many informal Papuan leaders, including Theys' widow Erika, was guarded by around 30 policemen.

After the court session, prosecutors left the courtroom immediately, without making any comment to reporters.

Don Al Flassy, who waved a small "Morning Star" independence flag inside the court a few minutes before the verdict was read, said after the session that his acquittal only strengthened his commitment to continuing his efforts to "straighten the history of Papua."

Thaha supported Don's statement, stressing that their struggle would be pursued through peaceful means.

Defendant lawyer Anton Raharusun described the verdict as "extraordinary," saying that the judges had dared to disregard the colonial law on subversion.

"The judges have issued a very daring verdict, especially as it means that they have challenged the power holders," he said.

This verdict should be good news to Papuans, especially after the murder of their leader, Theys.

A military investigation team has been digging up areas around the Army's Special Force (Kopassus) headquarters, following speculation that a missing key witness, Eluay's driver, may have been murdered and buried there.

The driver, Aristoteles Masoka, was driving Eluay home from a ceremony at the Kopassus base when their car was stopped by a group of men on November 10. Eluay was found dead in his car the following day.

Theys, and other Papuan Presidium Council members had been campaigning for an independent Papua through peaceful means.

In an effort to win the hearts of the Papuans and discourage separatism, the government renamed Irian Jaya as Papua under a special autonomy law, under which the province would get a much greater share of the revenue from its natural resources.

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