Indonesia sentenced five Australians to up to three years in jail yesterday for illegally landing a plane last year in Indonesia’s sensitive Papua Province.
The five, who said they believed they could get visas on arrival but were carrying no travel papers, looked shocked as the verdicts were handed down by a court in Papua, which is a highly restricted area.
“I can’t believe this,” said Vera Scott-Bloxam, one of the four passengers, who were given two-year jail terms and fined 25 million rupiah (US$2,275). Her husband William, the pilot, got three years and double the fine.
A lawyer for the Australians — the Scott-Bloxams, Hubert Hufer, Karen Burke and Keith Ronald Mortimer — described the sentences as harsh and immediately promised to appeal.
The two women and three men were arrested when they made an unannounced landing at Mopah airport in Papua’s Merauke district on Sept. 12 after a flight from Horn island, off the northern tip of Australia’s Queensland state.
They told police they were on a private sightseeing trip and believed they could obtain visas on arrival, although they were not carrying travel documents.
“The pilot William Scott-Bloxam has been proven legally and convincingly guilty of violating Indonesian transportation law by illegally entering Indonesian territory,” Judge Des Benner Sinaga told Merauke district court.
The aircraft was also seized by the Indonesian government.
Indonesia imposes tight restrictions on travel to Papua, where a small guerrilla force has been waging a low-level separatist insurgency since the 1960s, and where the Indonesian military is often accused of rights abuses.
Journalists without special permits are barred from the region.
Australians are entitled to visas on arrival in other parts of Indonesia as long as they have valid passports and authorities find no reason to deny them.
Defence lawyer Efrem Fangoihoy said he was surprised at the length of the jail sentences.
“I declare here firmly that we will file an appeal against the verdict, which we consider to be too heavy,” he said.
“This is a very shameful decision. Based on immigration law, there is an exception for pilots and crew that they don’t need a visa to enter our country,” he said.
“Others [such as passengers] cannot be brought to justice as they landed in an airport which is a neutral zone. If they don’t have visas, they should be sent back to their country,” he said.
Indonesian and Australian officials have said that while their actions were foolish, the five posed no threat.
Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono told reporters after a meeting with his Australian counterpart Joel Fitzgibbon in September that the Australians were “looking for an opportunity to open up tourism.”
Fitzgibbon said they had shown “very, very poor judgment” but added: “There isn’t any evidence that they were up to what we would describe as any sort of activities that should be a threat to Indonesia.”