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Indonesian Soldiers on Trial for Murder of Papua Independence Leader - 2003-01-03

Indonesia has convened a military tribunal to try army special forces soldiers for the murder of Papua independence leader Theys Eluay.

The seven soldiers are accused of murdering Theys Eluay, the chairman of the Papua Presidium Council, in November 2001. Mr. Eluay was kidnapped and killed after he had attended dinner with members of the Indonesian special forces, known as Kopassus.

Four defendants appeared in court Friday, in the town of Surabaya, and the other three will be tried later. All the accused deny any part in the murder.

Lieutenant Colonel Hartomo is the highest-ranking official facing charges. He was the head of special forces in Papua at the time of the murder. Shortly after the killing, he told police that Mr. Eluay had died of a heart attack, but an autopsy showed evidence of strangulation.

Mr. Eluay's driver, who disappeared at the same time as his employer, is still missing. Mr. Eluay was one of the most prominent and popular leaders of the peaceful movement for Papuan independence from Indonesia.

Papuan separatists and armed rebels have been working for an independent state since the mineral-rich region was annexed by Indonesia in 1963. They have refused to accept a controversial U.N.-backed referendum, held in 1969, saying the vote by tribal leaders did not reflect the views of the majority of Papuans.

Mr. Eluay's death came within weeks of Jakarta approving a special autonomy plan for Papua, a decision opposed by the army.

The Indonesian military in Papua is believed responsible for a long history of human rights abuses. The decision to put the seven soldiers on trial goes some way to address the widespread complaint of Papuans that they can expect no justice under Indonesian rule.