The Constitutional Court approved on Monday a request to drop two articles in the 2004 Law on Plantations deemed potentially discriminatory against indigenous farmers in land disputes.
The request was originally filed by four farmers from West Kalimantan, East Java and North Sumatra.
Each farmer had received jail terms of between six months and a year under Article 21 of the 2004 law for protest actions they took to reclaim ancestral lands.
The article prohibits any efforts to damage plantations or other assets, any use of plantation land without permission and any other action that disturbs plantation businesses.
The punishment for violating the law is a maximum jail term of five years and a fine of up to Rp 5 billion ($565,000).
The plaintiffs were Sakri, a 41-year-old farmer from Blitar, East Java; Japin, 39, and Vitalis Andi, 30, from Ketapang, West Kalimantan; and Ngatimin, 49, from Serdang Bedagai, North Sumatra.
Chief Justice Mahfud M.D. ruled that the two articles were unconstitutional and no longer binding. He said land conflicts between indigenous farmers and non-indigenous populations should be settled through the civil court system or by mediation.
Wahyu Wagiman from the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (Elsam), who represented the plaintiffs, welcomed the ruling as a relief to more than 600 traditional communities in the country that were threatened by the law.
“Our next step is to spread the word as wide as possible and to find a way to release farmers currently charged under Articles 21 and 47, including Japin, Vitalis and Ngatimin,” Wahyu said.
Japin and Vitalis each served 10 months in jail for “displacing” an excavator that was about to be used to clear land they were contesting in 2009.
The pair filed an appeal in March. Ngatimin was sentenced to one year in jail for planting trees in a disputed area in an effort to reclaim it in 2007.
“The ruling can be presented as new evidence at the Supreme Court, which is now reviewing their cases,” Wahyu said.
Sakri already served six months of probation in 2008 for forcefully trying to reclaim land.
The judges agreed the law had ignored the historical context of land ownership in Indonesia.
“The wide variety of land disputes should be solved thoroughly by involving NGOs and academics, and this is not reflected by Article 21,” Judge Achmad Sodiki told the court.
The law was widely criticized when it was passed for failing to protect the interests of small-scale farmers and indigenous communities and for giving big business too much power.