Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ruth Ogetay: A Passion to help prisoners

Jenny Denton 

Ruth Ogetay
wanted to be a nurse, but an experience with domestic violence set her life on a new course. Ruth found her calling in Jakarta. The 27-year-old woman from Paniai, Papua, had dreamed since childhood of becoming a nurse, and after finishing high school left home to study in Java. 

Although in Yogyakarta she finished her degree and qualified for the job, a nightmare started to unfold there that caused her to flee the city. When an old acquaintance arrived in Yogyakarta, Ruth was busy writing her final assignments. While she hardly knew him, he insisted on meeting up. 

On their first outing, to church, he introduced her in front of her friends as his fiancé. The next day when he saw her walking with a male friend he punched her in the face, she said. 

Ruth wrote a letter to the man who claimed to be her boyfriend, telling him they had no relationship and to please keep away. He didn't seem to care how she felt and kept coming after her. In separate incidents, that he smashed her head against a wall, held a knife to her throat and appeared out of nowhere at a soccer game to beat her 'black and blue', according to Ruth. 

"I felt I had no freedom. He talked about killing me," the young woman says. 

Feeling trapped and frightened, she contacted a friend, who invited her to come to stay in Jakarta. It was there that she met Human Rights Watch campaigner Andreas Harsono, who introduced her to human rights work and NGOs and arranged an internship at Pantau Foundation, a media training organization. 

Meanwhile, Ruth had got a job as a nurse at Cikini Hospital. When imprisoned Papuan political activist Filep Karma was brought there for surgery in September 2012, she provided him with medical care and also worked on the complicated logistics of the visit. 

"I knew of Filep Karma before he came to Cikini Hospital. He is a very important figure for the Papuan people," she says. "But at the hospital I got to know him personally."

Filep, a 56-year-old political science graduate and former civil servant, spent 15 years advocating for the independence of Papua and West Papua through peaceful dialogue. He was arrested in December 2004 for organizing a pro-independence rally and sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for treason.

"I adore Filep Karma," Ruth says, smiling. 'He is kind, he is warm, he is decent, he is gentle and he tells a lot of jokes. When he says yes he means yes. If he says no he means no. He doesn't like to say bad things about people although he might disagree with them. He always tries to be polite.' 

Her friendship with Filep and exposure to human rights issues awakened in Ruth an empathy for the plight of those imprisoned for the exercise of their political rights as Papuans in her homeland. 

A few months after Filep's surgery in Jakarta she returned to Papua to visit him in Abepura prison. Then, and on subsequent trips, she met with nine other prisoners in Jayapura, Nabire and Biak to who she delivered food, medicine and news from the capital. Almost all of the prisoners had health problems, at least one due to torture according to a Human Rights Watch Report. 

Some grew ill because the conditions of their detention were poor. They never ate meat, only tofu, tempeh or fish. Sometimes there wasn't enough to go around. There are currently 74 political prisoners in Papua and many of them have suffered 'arbitrary arrest, violence, abuse, torture, unfair trials, intimidation and neglect, according to the website Papuans Behind Bars. 

The site, launched in April, is the initiative of a coalition of civil society groups to 'increase democratic space' in Papua by documenting the cases of all prisoners whose arrests there were politically motivated. 

These days Ruth talks with Filep by phone two or three times a month and says his health is good. Although the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention investigated his case and called on the Indonesian government to release Filep, the authorities have shown no intention to do so, deeming those imprisoned for treason as criminals. 

In November, Ruth quit her job to attend a human rights and diplomacy program in Timor Leste, where she received training in how to document and report rights abuses. Now back in Jakarta studying English, she is continuing to help the detainees' fund raising, organizing medical care, talking with their families. 

She hopes to keep visiting the prisoners and working to improve the human rights situation for everyone in her homeland. 'Deep in my heart, I always wanted to do something for my people,' she says. "Now I know what to do."

When her tormentor showed up in Jakarta her at her work. Ruth reported him to the police. He was sentenced to seven months in jail. 

In Jakarta, Ruth has made good friends, learned about the world and come to love the malls. And while the fear that her assailant could appear again at any time has affected her sense of freedom, she has found her purpose in life in trying to help other people find theirs.

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