Subject: SMH: Hope of prosecutions 25 years after Balibo killings

Sydney Morning Herald Monday, October 16, 2000

Hope of prosecutions 25 years after Balibo killings

By HAMISH MCDONALD, Foreign Editor in Dili

A quarter century ago, just about the time most readers will open this newspaper at home or on the way to work, five young television newsmen from Sydney and Melbourne were shot and stabbed to death while trying to surrender to Indonesian soldiers at the village of Balibo west of here.

For 25 years, the search by relatives and others for the full story of what happened and who was responsible at Balibo has come up against brick walls: Indonesian denials about their covert invasion, Australia's protection of secret intelligence, fear among the vulnerable Timorese witnesses.

But now, in what still seems a scarcely believable twist of history, a half-dozen senior police from around the world, working from a room in the former Indonesian Army headquarters in Dili, are moving steadily towards prosecutions in the Balibo case.

Their work could ultimately see criminal or human rights charges laid against former Indonesian soldiers for the murder of Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, Britons Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, and New Zealander Gary Cunningham, who were all working for Australian TV stations.

The police - who include an Australian Federal Police officer, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and officers from Nepal, Bosnia, the United States, and Nigeria - are members of the civilian police attached to the United Nations transitional administration here.

Their interest in the case started two months ago when an Australian soldier serving with UN peacekeepers filed a report of encountering a new witness - a Timorese who had not been interviewed in any inquiry or told his story.

The Timorese was not a witness to the killings, but provided a wealth of direct testimony that supports the identification of Indonesians involved, and led to interviews with direct witnesses.

The police team still appears some time away from finalising a case which it can confidently refer to a magistrate who, under the European system of law applying in East Timor, will be the authority launching prosecutions. But fears of missing a 25-year statute of limitations deadline under Portuguese law are misplaced.

According to the UN's assistant police commissioner in East Timor, Mr Antero Lopes, the case is valid as long as it was opened before expiry of 25 years from the crime. "We are in time to conduct this case, and to close it once and for all."

Mr Lopes said police aimed to build a convincing body of evidence that could lead either to a criminal prosecution for murder, or to charges of crimes against humanity under international conventions administered by the UN human rights agency.

Other police and legal sources here say the crimes-against-humanity approach could in fact be easier to mount than a criminal case, and could draw in more senior personnel who were not present at Balibo but who may have ordered the attack and may actively or passively have led troops to shoot prisoners.

While it was unlikely any indicted persons would surrender themselves for trial or be handed over by Indonesian authorities, the sources said, they could face arrest and extradition if they travelled abroad. In addition, laying criminal charges could spark civil actions by victims' relatives to attach property owned by the accused outside Indonesia.

A further avenue is being explored by a Sydney solicitor, Mr Rodney Lewis, who has been retained by Mrs Maureen Tolfree, sister of Brian Peters, to seek a NSW coronial inquest into the death of her brother, who lived in Sydney and worked for Channel 9.

Mrs Tolfree came to Sydney last week to consult Mr Lewis.

Unlike two previous inquiries by former National Crime Authority chairman Mr Tom Sherman, a coronial inquest would have the power to compel witnesses and take sworn testimony.

Speculation has also begun in Australian legal circles that the recently opened 1974-76 Timor archives of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - showing Canberra was briefed by Indonesian intelligence sources about the Balibo attack three days beforehand - might justify an action by relatives against the Federal Government.

The Balibo inquiry is being pursued amid the rubble of a town devastated deliberately only a year ago, in a caseload that includes much more recent and serious atrocities. Yet police deny the interest is disproportionate.

"This is where it started," one police official said. "They killed five people there, they got away with it, and then went on and on for nearly 25 years."

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