In the video Mehrtens, a former Jetstar pilot, appears gaunt and pale, and is sporting a scraggly brown beard after over a year spent in captivity. The captive pilot identifies the date as December 22, 2023, although the video was released last week.
He is smiling as he sits against a backdrop of lush jungle at an undisclosed location in Papua and addresses his family:
“I’m OK. They are treating me well. I’m trying to stay positive and I hope that you [ …] are healthy and doing OK and getting support,” he says.
He then adds that the “komandan”, thought to be a reference to his captor Egianus Kogoya, a commander in the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN-PB), has said that he will try to organise a phone call with Mehrtens’ family in the coming days.
“I love you both lots and miss you both lots and hope to be able to talk with you soon,” he adds.
Mehrtens was abducted by the TPN-PB on February 7 last year when he flew a small single propeller plane for the Indonesian airline Susi Air to Paro in the Papua highlands, carrying five Papuan passengers.
As part of the trip, he was meant to pick up a group of health workers then return to the town of Timika. During the trip the plane was set upon, set alight and the Papuan passengers released before Mehrtens was snatched.
Originally, the group threatened to shoot Mehrtens if Papua was not granted independence from the rest of Indonesia, a demand based on a protracted conflict that has been ongoing for decades.
Papua is located in the western half of the island of New Guinea to the north of Australia and the Indonesian government considers it part of its territory.
The TPN-PB is the armed wing of the wider Free Papua Movement, which has been fighting for independence since 1969, and the Indonesian government classifies the TPN-PB as a terrorist organisation.
In a second video also released last week, Mehrtens appears to address the New Zealand government and asks for some supplies to ease his time in captivity.
“Can you please help to get one or two ventolin inhalers just so that I have them available in case I get some asthma and, if possible, can I please get an e-book reader like a Kindle with as many English books as possible. That would be very much appreciated,” he says.
Mehrtens’ fate remains in limbo as members of the TPN-PB continue to argue about the best course of action moving forward.
Damien Kingsbury, an emeritus professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University in Melbourne, told news.com.au that Mehrtens release has already been ordered within the rebel group.
“The TPN-PB commander, Terianus Satto, has called on Nduga TPN-PB leader Egianus Kogoyo to release Mehrtens on humanitarian grounds. However, Kogoya has not yet done so. There has been a request by the Nduga TPN-PB for neutral mediation to facilitate the release,” he said.
“It is important to note that the TPN-PB is decentralised and that field commanders such as Kogoya tend to act autonomously. It is not a conventional military command and control structure, hence ‘commands’ from HQ may not always be acted upon.”
Kingsbury was involved in preliminary negotiations to help free Mehrtens after Kogoya threatened to kill him.
“There were a number of discussions with the New Zealand government but, despite getting to the point of modalities for Mehrtens’ release, it was not willing to meet with TPN-PB representatives or negotiate for Mehrtens’ release. My role with the New Zealand government ended there,” he said.
On the year anniversary of the capture on February 7, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters put out a statement regarding Mehrtens’ prolonged captivity.
“We strongly urge those holding Phillip to release him immediately and without harm. His continued detention serves the interests of no one,” the statement said.
However experts told news.com.au that any potential release was fraught with issues.
Deka Anwar, a research analyst at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), told news.com.au that Mehrtens’ case “illustrates the difficulties of negotiations with rebels”.
In particular, Anwar said that there was a lack of unity between Kogoya and TPN-PB spokesperson Sebby Sambom, who has said that Mehrtens should be released on “humanitarian grounds”.
“There is tension between Kogoya and Sambom who seem to have different plans. Sambom wants to get credit for releasing the pilot safely and Kogoya also wants to be the one to release him personally with some sort of official ceremony. He wants Mehrtens’ family and New Zealand diplomats to go there personally to collect him,” said Anwar.
“Sambom’s main goal is to be seen as a benevolent figure as the TPN-PB is widely considered to be a belligerent and insurgent organisation. So there are conflicting interests between political commanders.”
Anwar added however that it seemed unlikely that Mehrtens would be killed by Kogoya, after being kept in captivity for a year, and that the commander had likely abandoned any political aspirations in favour of resolving the escalating situation.
“It seems that there is a genuine intention to release the hostage soon, perhaps early this year,” he said.
Aisyah Llewellyn is a freelance journalist based in Indonesia.