Wamena, Papua, Indonesia – Polish traveller Jakob Skrzypski has been found guilty of treason and sentenced to five years in prison in Papua on the far east of Indonesia, the first foreigner to be convicted of such a crime.
Skrzypski is charged with meeting members of a pro-independence organisation in the restive region of the southeast Asian archipelago.
Maintaining his innocence, the 39-year-old Pole said the court’s decision was politically motivated and that he was a victim of a show trial. Skrzypski will appeal the sentence, his lawyer said.
The Pole was arrested in Papua in August last year and accused of meeting members of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), including student Simon Magal who was also put on trial.
Magal, who is the nephew of West Papua activist Yosepha Alomang, a long-time campaigner against the giant Freeport McMoran gold mine in the territory, was jailed for four years.
The far eastern region that shares an island with Papua New Guinea became part of Indonesia in 1969 after a controversial referendum, triggering a low-intensity rebellion that has rumbled for decades.
The territory remains off-limits to foreign journalists despite a 2015 promise to open up the area to the international media.
During the trial last month, defence lawyer Latifah Anum Siregar argued that Skrzypski could not be charged with treason because the KNPB was not registered and had not been banned.
The prosecution dropped earlier allegations that Skrzypski was an arms dealer, instead focussing on his meetings with independence supporters.
The KNPB says it is a peaceful movement that campaigns for the indigenous people’s right to self-determination. Other pro-independence groups include the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) and the Free Papua Movement (OPM).
Fighting erupted most recently in December in Nduga after 17 workers on a road construction site were killed by independence fighters and the military began a crackdown that forced thousands to flee.
Prosecutor Fanny Karel Leimena argued that while KNPB was not registered, its ideology could be considered a threat to the Indonesian state.
Rights group Amnesty International had earlier expressed its doubts over the charges against Skrzypski.
“The prosecutor failed to prove any evidence that [Skrzypski] committed treason,” Usman Hamid, head of Amnesty International Indonesia, told Al Jazeera.
“We consider all of them to be prisoners of conscience who are imprisoned solely for peacefully expressing their political views and [who] have not used violence or hatred,” he said.
Skrzypski, who had been working in a factory in Switzerland before he began travelling, maintains he was a tourist who went to Papua as part of a backpacking trip across Indonesia.
Having visited the popular islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali, he said he was curious about Papua, especially given the long-running rebellion in the region.
Al Jazeera visited Skrzypski in prison in Wamena in the Papuan highlands as he went on trial last month.
The cell where he had been held since November measures only three square metres. Beds lie on the floor and there is almost no space to walk. It has only one dirty toilet with no hot water. He shares the cell with four other inmates.
Skrzypski said prison conditions were bad and there was a lack of clean water. He said he mostly ate rice and vegetables, which came wrapped in the paper twice a day. If he was lucky, there would be chicken.
During his detention, he asked the police to send him back to the prison in Jayapura, the provincial capital, and considered going on hunger strike. He said that being held in Wamena had made it difficult for Polish diplomats to visit him or media to report on the case.
Skrzypski is not the first foreigner to run into trouble in Papua, although he is the first to be charged with treason and found guilty.
An Australian student was barred from Indonesia last year after making an attempt to enter the region. In 2017, two French journalists were found guilty of entering Papua illegally and jailed for over two months.
Two of Skrzypski‘s potential witnesses, including Edward ‘Edo’ Wandik – the man who introduced him to KNPB members, disappeared before they were able to give any evidence.
The Polish citizen maintains that he met Edo by chance in a restaurant.
“So many foreigners and researchers came to the headquarters, even published journalists, but they have not been charged with treason,” Anum said. “Why him?”
“Documenting a meeting with the group which is accused [of being] against the state, or a group which is banned by the state is not a crime. Moreover, all these members [who met him] have never been arrested by the state,” she added.
Ahmad Kamal, the spokesman for the Papua police, declined to comment on Skrzypski’s allegations, saying the matter was now in the hands of the prosecutors.
After meeting in Jayapura, Skrzypski and Edo flew together to Wamena to meet Edo’s family. It was there that Edo introduced him to two members of the KNPB. “Whether they are members of anything, I don’t know,” Skrzypski said.
In early September, police arrested those people for possessing weapons.
“I didn’t know that Simon [Magal] was related to Yosepha Alomang, and I have learned about her [Yosepha] for the first time only in Papua,” Skrzypski told Al Jazeera.
Skrzypski says he learned about the KNPB and was introduced to Magal over the internet.
Over Facebook Messenger, he says, they mostly talked about West Papua’s culture and Magal’s plan to secure a scholarship overseas. The police say the evidence showed Skrzypski had actually shown his support for West Papua’s independence movement.
Since Skrzypski’s arrest, police have also arrested pro-independence activists and raided some of KNPB’s offices, accusing them of having ammunition and working to overthrow the Indonesian rule.
Skrzypski’s conviction came as independence activists step up their global advocacy. In January, Benny Wenda, the exiled chairman of the ULMWP, submitted a petition signed by more than 1.8 million people calling for independence to the United Nations.
On Wednesday, lawyers representing 20 Papuans started legal action to challenge the referendum that made Papua a part of Indonesia.
Skrzypski, meanwhile, says he will continue to fight for his freedom. “I don’t want to spend any more days here,” he told Al Jazeera.