Subject: Scotsman: Caught in the line of fire

Caught in the line of fire

The Scotsman - United Kingdom, Feb 12, 2001


Malcolm Rennie was on his first foreign assignment, pursuing the biggest story of his life. Working for Australia's Channel Nine, the Renfrewshire-born Scot, along with four other Australian-based television journalists, were in the town of Balibo, East Timor, to see whether Indonesian forces would invade the former Portuguese colony.

They had been discouraged by the Australian government from journeying to Timor, a few hundred miles off the north Australian coast, but were chasing the biggest story to break in south-east Asia for years. And they got it when, in the dawn light of 16 October, 1975, a covert invasion force converged on Balibo.

A ll five men were shot dead.

The story to emerge at the time was that Rennie, just 29, and fellow Briton Brian Peters, with Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart from Australia and New Zealander Gary Cunningham, were caught in the crossfire between the Indonesian invaders and the East Timorese Fretilin independence fighters. Only now, more than 25 years on, might a war crimes court confirm widespread allegations that the journalists were murdered in cold blood by an elite Indonesian special forces unit.

Last week it was confirmed that United Nations investigators have completed their inquiries into the incident. The UN prosecutor-general for East Timor, Mohamed Othman, is evaluating the evidence with a view to issuing warrants for the arrest of retired Indonesian cabinet minister and general Mohammad Yunus Yosfiah, along with another Indonesian, Christoforus da Silva, and an East Timorese, Domingos Bere, both of whom were serving under the then Captain Yunus that morning.

It was only in recent years that the families of the two Britons who died began to question the official version of events given to them by the Foreign Office - that their sons had been caught in crossfire. They were led to believe that the bodies had been burned during shelling or, in one case, for health reasons, and the remains buried in a collective grave in Jakarta.

In fact, the bodies seem to have been burned by Indonesian troops as a cover-up. It was not until the mid-1990s that different accounts began to reach the families of Rennie and Peters.

In Australia, Tom Sherman, a lawyer and former chairman of the National Crime Authority, led two investigations. While the first of these was inconclusive, the second, along with a TV documentary, unearthed further witnesses. One has testified that he watched one of the three men wanted by the UN, Christoforus da Silva, with a companion, shooting a journalist in a house where the five had taken refuge; another has said he saw Yunus fire at four of them.

Hugh Dowson, a Bath-based former UN Association employee and campaigner on East Timor issues, accompanied Rennie's mother, Minna, to Canberra and Sydney to interview the Australian foreign minister and the Indonesian ambassador. He notes that the Australian government has admitted it knew beforehand Indonesia was going to invade.

Although Renfrewshire born, Malcolm Rennie grew up partly in Latin America and Australia. His father, Jack, died some years ago and Minna, 82, who now lives in the Isle of Man, suffers from poor health. His cousin Margaret Wilson, who remembers him from childhood, is encouraged by developments, though with some reservations.

Wilson says the British Foreign Office has declined to release relevant files, citing the 30-year rule. "What I didn't understand until recently was that 'security' doesn't only cover what you think it does, but any papers that might lead to a breakdown in their relationship with another country," she says.

While nothing can bring back Malcolm Rennie , a trial, says Wilson, would not only bring about some kind of justice, "it would also point up the fact that the British and Australian governments haven't taken this affair seriously. The British government's official line is still that the first Sherman report is the 'benchmark', so far as they're concerned, even though the second Sherman report went quite a bit further. I would still like to see the Foreign Office order a full judicial review."

If the UN prosecution goes ahead, the charges are likely to be "crimes against humanity" rather than murder. Yunus will be the first senior Indonesian official to face a war crimes tribunal since the United Nations moved into East Timor in 1999. But while such a case might bring a degree of closure to bereaved families the implications reach far wider. "There are very important people in Australia and elsewhere who are going to fall off their perches if the UN does anything," says Dowson.

Any Indonesian pressure on the UN to drop the case should, he says, be firmly resisted. "Otherwise Indonesians will know that they can get away with whatever the hell they like, and the implications for the future are terrible."

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