Subject: SMH editorial: East Timor cops

Sydney Morning Herald October 24, 2000


Timor cops

It's a standard plot line in Morse, A Touch of Frost or Prime Suspect: veteran cop picks up a baffling murder case, finds leads pointing to arrest of well-connected party, police chief takes unusually close interest, suspends cop for trumped-up reason and transfers the case to more "reliable" officers. Two of Australia's police serving with the United Nations in East Timor might be justified in thinking themselves in a similar spot. Two months ago, John Skeffington and Tom Hanlon, both experienced criminal investigators with the West Australian police, were given a new lead into the murders of five Australian-based newsmen at Balibo in 1975. This arrived through a Timorese witness who came forward to UN peacekeepers. Though apparently not an eyewitness, this new source helped unlock further insights and evidence, identifying several of the alleged killers among the invading Indonesian force. Together with colleagues from other nations in the UN's serious crimes unit in Dili, the two Australian policemen have made considerable progress in building a legal case to place before a magistrate. It will be this magistrate, operating under the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor, who will decide whether to lay charges, either under Portuguese law then applying - at least in formal terms - in East Timor, or under the crimes against humanity provisions of international human rights law.

Earlier it was thought a 25-year statute of limitations might cut short the time available to the UN police to complete the Balibo investigation. Now Australian bureaucracy, or possibly something more sinister, may hamper the case. The two Australian officers leading the inquiry will be hard-pressed to finish the job before their six-month assignment to East Timor ends on November 10. And the Australian Federal Police, which recruits and contributes to the UN contingent, has declined a request from Mr Skeffington and Mr Hanlon to have their tour of duty extended by three months because of the Balibo case.

It is puzzling, and disturbing, that the AFP is insisting this was simply a routine decision. The extension request was backed by a letter from the UN chief in East Timor, Mr Sergio Vieira de Mello, to the AFP's Commissioner, Mr Mick Palmer. Strong interest in the UN's inquiry had been shown by Australian authorities, including the Foreign Minister, Mr Downer. It is still unclear who took the decision, and on what advice, to tell the UN the extension was refused.

The AFP says the replacement officers in the next Timor contingent will be equally skilled investigators. Perhaps so, but the change at this crucial point can only delay and perhaps derail an inquiry that so far seems to be admirably conducted. Why not depart from routine in this extraordinary case, which has been the focus of so much attention and anguish over the past 25 years? Not to do so invites speculation about possible motives, and seems insensitive. The refusal of the three-month extension should be reconsidered and the two officers given the time to complete their case.

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