Subject: A Year Later, East Timor's People Are Still Waiting for Justice

International Herald Tribune 
Wednesday, August 30, 2000


A Year Later, East Timor's People Are Still Waiting for Justice

By Aderito de Jesus Soares 
International Herald Tribune

DILI, East Timor - For a few hours last Aug. 30, I felt the thrill of freedom. With tens of thousands of fellow East Timorese who braved threats from the Indonesian military and its militia proxies, I cast my ballot for independence in the United Nations-run referendum. Nearly eight out of 10 did likewise, repudiating Indonesia's illegal annexation of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, in 1976.

But all too soon the feeling of exhilaration had turned to horror as those who wanted East Timor to remain part of Indonesia unleashed a campaign of killing and destruction. On Sept. 5, Indonesian soldiers and militia surrounded the human rights office where my colleagues and I were working. They fired their weapons into the building, forcing us to cower on the floor.

Fortunately, we had cell phones and could call international human rights organizations and foreign diplomatic missions. In response to the resulting pressure, the Indonesian riot police arrived after two hours. They forced us to evacuate ''for our own protection'' to police headquarters, where hundreds of other East Timorese, mainly children and old people, had also fled.

Inside were militia leaders dressed in army uniforms carrying automatic weapons and hand grenades, belying the claim that they were rogue elements operating without the approval or support of the military and police. Many militiamen were wandering around the police compound carrying jerry cans, presumably full of gasoline.

These were the deadly tools of their destruction campaign in post-referendum East Timor.

The results of that campaign left a terrible legacy. The vast majority of the country's buildings and infrastructure was in ruins, untold numbers of people had been killed and a large segment of the population had been forcibly deported to neighboring West Timor.

This campaign was a finalact of Indonesian brutality after almost 24 years of terrorizing the East Timorese people. It showed the inability, or the unwillingness, of the international community to protect our basic human rights.

Almost a year after the tragedy, the world's most powerful countries seem to have forgotten what happened in East Timor - not only in 1999 but beginning in 1975 when Indonesia invaded our homeland. While elements of the United Nations have worked hard to ensure that those responsible for our suffering are held accountable, we are little closer to realizing justice for the East Timorese than we were last year.

The horror of last September seemed to galvanize international resolve. The flagrant way the Indonesian military flouted the will of the international community and its blatant disregard of its own promise to provide security before, during and after the UN-organized vote led to the establishment of a UN International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor.

On Jan. 31 the commission recommended that an international tribunal be set up to investigate and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in East Timor from Jan. 1 to Oct. 25, 1999. The Indonesian government protested, insisting that it should have the right to prosecute its own citizens and East Timorese then under its control.

Indonesia's powerful allies on the UN Security Council - particularly the United States, Britain and France - agreed. The council added, however, that Indonesia should begin prosecutions ''as soon as possible.'' It called on Jakarta ''to institute a swift, comprehensive, effective and transparent legal process, in conformity with international standards of justice and due process of law.''

In February, Indonesia's attorney general, Marzuki Darusman, said it would take three months to decide whether to file charges, and against whom. More than six months later, Indonesian authorities have failed to prosecute a single case or even file any charges.

To make matters worse, the Indonesian Parliament recently passed a constitutional amendment that will make it effectively impossible for any future human rights court in Indonesia to try crimes by the Indonesian military in East Timor.

The United Nations should immediately set up a human rights tribunal for East Timor. Such a tribunal should not be limited to crimes committed in 1999 but should cover all crimes beginning in 1975 when the Indonesian military began its campaign of terror against the East Timorese people.

The United States, Britain and Australia have a special responsibility to ensure that this happens because for more than two decades they backed Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. Their active support for an international tribunal will help them atone for their complicity.

It will also help to heal the wounds of those who were most victimized and to build an independent East Timor which respects the principles of democracy and human rights.

The writer, a lawyer and human rights advocate, founded the East Timor National Jurists Association. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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