Johan Teterissa just turned sixty years of age, but there was no birthday celebration. He remains locked away in the Batu Prison on Nusakambangan Island in the central Java region of Indonesia. The high-security prison island, known by locals as Pulau Hantu or Ghost Island, had snakes, mostly cobras, spread around it ten years ago to deter inmates from trying to escape. Because of the high number of death row convicts it also is referred to as Indonesia’s “execution island.”

Born in 1961, Teterissa was an elementary school teacher and an active member of RMS (Republic of the South Moluccas), a small group of separatists, who advocated the independence of the South Molucca Islands of Indonesia. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason in April 2008 after conducting a nonviolent protest against Indonesian rule in 2007. Teterissa reportedly first joined RMS in 2002, a movement with a long history.

The RMS was formed in the 1950s following Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands. It is known by its Indonesian acronym, RMS, which stands for Republic Maluku Selatan. The group declared an independent country on April 25, 1950 but was soon defeated by the Indonesian military. Then its leadership formed a government in exile in the Netherlands, the former colonial ruler of Indonesia and the Moluccas (formerly known as the Spice Islands). The islands are located about 1,400 miles east from the capital Jakarta.

One of the United Nations Press Corps journalists to champion the cause of the South Moluccan people’s struggle to regain their independence was United Israel World Union President David Horowitz. He felt from an international point of view, the South Molucca case was just and still on the agenda of the Security Council of the UN, dating back to the year 1950, and had never been removed.

In February of 1974, Miss Pelpina W. Sahureka, Foreign Minister of the Republic of the South Moluccas, whose government-in-exile was headquartered in friendly Holland, addressed a special meeting of United Israel World Union held at the Mount Nebo Congregation in Manhattan. Among the speakers at the special affair were humanitarian-philanthropist Harry Leventhal and noted physician-scholar Dr. M. I. Salomon, both UIWU Vice-Presidents.

Following her introduction by David Horowitz, Miss Sahureka reported on the background history of the heroic South Moluccan people, pointing to their unceasing struggle to regain their independence. She expressed deep gratitude for the support and encouragement her people had been receiving from many Americans, but especially from the president of UIWU and its members. She pointed to the similarity between the Jewish people’s struggle for independence some twenty-five years ago and that of her own people, whose struggle commenced at almost the same time. 

By the summer of 1974, the American Committee for the Recognition of South Moluccas’ Independence was gaining momentum. The government-in exile President General Izaak Tamaela, and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miss Sahureka were back in New York. A short time after their arrival in America, General Tamaela and Miss Sahureka were the guests of David Horowitz at a small reception in his home. Horowitz later spoke at a committee luncheon hosted by the South Moluccas.

In a little known fact, the UIWU historical archives revealed that probably the first time in American history, the four-color flag of the South Moluccas-representing a population of over three million souls in the Indonesian archipelago-was hoisted on U. S. soil in the township of West Olive, Michigan on October 13, 1974. The occasion marked an ‘open house’ fete by the Michigan unit of UIWU. It followed the hoisting of the American and Israeli flags with the accompaniment of the national anthem of both nations. Present were General Tamaela, Miss Sahureka, and South Moluccan aide Dick Siahaya, all having made the trip from New York after attending a series of meetings there.

Following years of support for the RMS, David Horowitz was invited to appear as one of the featured speakers at the 32nd anniversary celebration of the proclamation of independence of the South Moluccan people held at Utrecht, Holland on April 24-25, 1982. Bringing a message from the American Committee for the Recognition of South Moluccan Independence, Horowitz declared their case before the UN was “a just cause based on historical facts,” and urged them to continue their fight for what is right.

Horowitz closed his message by stating, “Let us hope that the day will come when you will indeed celebrate the independence of the South Moluccas. And I intend to be there with you and with my American colleagues of the Committee. God Bless You All.” Around the same time somewhere in his home village of Aboru, in Central Maluku, young Johan Teterissa was celebrating his twenty-first birthday.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono arrived in Ambon, the provincial capital of Maluku, on June 29, 2007, to preside over a ceremony for National Family Day. A group of RMS protesters, led by Teterisa, peacefully disrupted the ceremony while President Yudhoyono was attending the event. A group of nineteen people, mainly teachers and farmers including Teterissa, performed a traditional Maluku dance, and then unfurled a separatist flag of the banned South Moluccan Republic, the RMS. Teterisa and other protesters were punched and beaten by police and presidential guards and immediately arrested. The incident was considered a great embarrassment for the government of Indonesia.

Johan Teterissa was convicted of “conspiracy against the state” and sentenced to life in prison on 3 April 2008 in the provincial capital city of Ambon by the Ambon district court. Teterissa’s life sentence is the maximum punishment for treason allowed under Indonesia’s Criminal code. He was 46 years old at the time of his sentencing. The other activists were also convicted of treason charges and sentenced to a term of imprisonment from 10 to 20 years for participating in the June 2007 protests.

Human rights activists have condemned Teterissa’s life sentence for a nonviolent protest as excessive. Antonius Sujata, a former Indonesian Deputy attorney-General, called Teterissa’s punishment, “emotional, and political nonsense.” Sujata also told the media “the man only waved a flag and did not try to harm the President.” Asmara Nababan, who is a former Secretary General of the Indonesian National Commission on human rights in the media, stated that the judges overreacted to the incident in his judgment, as the protest was non-violent. “He only waved an RMS flag, and did not carry a gun.”

Amnesty International reported that in June 2012, Teterissa and other prisoners did not have access to clean drinking water. The following month he was transferred to the notorious Batu Prison on Nusakambangan Island because of overpopulation.

In April of 2014, lawyers supported by Amnesty International met Johan at Batu Prison. They brought him clothes, shoes, letters and gifts as many of his personal belongings had been burnt during a prison raid in December 2013. He was thankful for the campaign and the many solidarity letters, and urged them to continue campaigning not just on his behalf, but also for all the other Maluku prisoners of conscience currently in prison on Java Island. Though Johan’s prison conditions have improved, there remains concern over reports of overcrowding, poor sanitation and a lack of access to adequate medical treatment.

There are over 100 people currently imprisoned that have endured years of torture and ill-treatment for peaceful political protests or for possessing, raising or waving the pro-independence flags of Maluku and Papua in Indonesia.  

United Nations journalist David Horowitz was an advocate and tireless worker on behalf of the South Moluccan people in their struggle for independence since 1950. Today, there are still those at the UN supporting the South Molucca cause. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) declared Johan Teterissa’s detention to be arbitrary on the grounds that he was imprisoned for the exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. These rights are guaranteed in both the Indonesian Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Indonesia is a state party.

In the meantime, Johan Teterissa, designated by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, remains alone, the isolated and abused prisoner that Indonesia seeks to hide from the world.

Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. An author, historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.