Seven Indonesian soldiers were convicted by a military court today in connection with the killing of a man seeking independence for Papua province in November 2001.

Human rights activists charged that the sentences, which ranged from 2 to 31/2 years, were lenient and that the prosecution avoided investigating higher-ups who might have been involved in the death of the man, Theys Eluay.

Eluay, an outspoken local politician in the remote eastern Indonesian province, formerly known as Irian Jaya, was found dead in his overturned car beside a road. The region has been the scene of a low-intensity independence struggle for decades.

The defendants, charged with torture or bodily harm causing death, faced seven-year sentences. They were convicted in the port city of Surabaya, 450 miles east of Jakarta, the capital.

"These are very light sentences," said Hendardi, a lawyer with the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Foundation, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. "The military court is about impunity for the military, to minimize sentences to protect the military."

The five officers and two soldiers who were convicted said they would appeal. They are all members of Kopassus, the special forces.

According to the three-judge panel, Lt. Col. Hartomo, the highest-ranking officer charged and convicted, ordered two soldiers to accompany Eluay home in his car after Eluay had dinner with Hartomo on Nov. 10, 2001. Three other soldiers followed in a military car, the judges said.

Hartomo had instructed his subordinates to warn Eluay not to go too far in pushing for independence, the court said. "It is up to you to decide how, but don't kill him," the chief prosecutor, Col. Haryanto, quoted Hartomo as saying.

In the car, Eluay and the soldiers began to debate the independence issue, and the atmosphere became tense. Feeling threatened, Eluay tried to shout for help. One of the soldiers, Achmad Zulfahmi, clamped both hands over Eluay's mouth and nose to keep him quiet, and Eluay eventually stopped breathing, the judges said.

Both Zulfahmi and Hartomo were sentenced to 31/2 years and dismissed from the military.

Defense lawyer Ruhut Sitompul said Eluay's death "was not a murder, but an accident. Eluay had a heart problem. There was no eyewitness at all." Haryanto, the prosecutor, said the autopsy showed that Eluay had died from a lack of oxygen.