Subject: NYTimes: Modest Beginnings for East Timor's Justice System

The New York Times Sunday, March 4, 2001

Modest Beginnings for East Timor's Justice System


Photo: Some of the nine defendants who are accused of killings, abductions, torture and forced deportations before and after East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999. Anastasia T. Vrachnos for The New York Times

DILI, East Timor, Feb. 26 — Judge Maria Natércia Perreira set her face in a judicial frown and studied the nine scruffy men lined up below her in the dock, she herself once a victim but now ready to hear evidence in East Timor's first case of crimes against humanity.

Standing shoulder to shoulder in their sandals and T-shirts, the men shifted uneasily in the hot and nearly empty courtroom. Members of a group called the Alpha Militia, they are accused of a series of killings, abductions, forced deportations and instances of torture committed in 1999, the year East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia.

In the most serious incident, they are charged with shooting and hacking to death two nuns, three seminarians and four civilians who were traveling by car near the eastern city of Los Palos.

According to the indictment and to independent investigators of the events of 1999, their actions were part of a campaign of violence organized by the Indonesian military that was intended, first, to derail the independence vote and then, when that failed, to lay waste to East Timor.

Photo: Judge Maria Natercia Pereira is hearing East Timor's first case of crimes against humanity. Anastasia T. Vrachnos for The New York Times

Now, as the new nation struggles to its feet under a United Nations administration, it is simultaneously creating a new court system with novice judges and lawyers and using that fledgeling system to try to address its recent trauma.

Mrs. Perreira, 31, a former civil servant, knows the story first-hand. Like hundreds of thousands of East Timorese, she lost her home to arson, was threatened with death by armed men and was deported, with her five children, into a militia-controlled camp in the Indonesian territory of West Timor.

One of the few East Timorese with a law degree, she has now joined two more experienced judges, from Italy and Burundi, on the three-judge panel that will hear the most serious cases from that period.

Like other Timorese being trained here, she has dedicated herself to the country's new system of justice, with its rights and protections and rules of fairness. But like others — both prosecutors and defense lawyers — she speaks passionately about the inherent unfairness of these trials.

"As a judge, it's my duty to enforce the law," she said. "Every individual must be responsible for his crimes. But speaking as a Timorese and not as a judge, I think this system is not fair. Is it fair to prosecute the small Timorese and not the big ones who gave them orders? Personally, I'm worried about this."

The big Timorese — the militia leaders — remain beyond the reach of the law, in hiding in West Timor. And at a still higher level, the Indonesian officers who recruited, trained and commanded the militias are safe at home, some of them already rewarded and promoted to higher ranks.

"The problem is, we've got the judicial process but not the perpetrators," said Patrick Burgess, director of the human rights unit in the United Nations administration here. "In Indonesia, they've got the perpetrators but not the process."

Despite an agreement signed last year to exchange defendants and witnesses between their separate court systems, analysts here are all but unanimous in saying that no Indonesian is likely ever to be sent to court in East Timor.

Indeed, in the Alpha Militia case, the man accused of giving the orders, Lt. Syaful Anwar, is an Indonesian army officer — the only defendant who is not present. "The Indonesians tell us they can't find him, they don't know his whereabouts, they don't know his address," Mrs. Perrera said.

Prospects for justice seem even more dim within Indonesia itself. The government has promised to carry out its own trials in an effort to avert formation by the United Nations of an international tribunal.

But after issuing a damning report one year ago that implicated a score of senior officers and officials, Indonesia has done little to move toward trials. Analysts say it is now highly unlikely that any high ranking figures will face justice there.

"The United Nations line is that we'll wait and see, give Indonesia an opportunity to prove that they can undertake a credible prosecution," Mr. Burgess said. "So we are still waiting. It's certainly an issue of how long we wait until we decide whether that process is credible or not."

Most experts are already convinced that justice in Indonesia is a lost cause. "We are a long way from real justice, either in Jakarta or in Dili," said Sidney Jones, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch in New York. "Certainly in Jakarta the process is totally and utterly stalled. We think people should start thinking again about an international tribunal, simply because the Jakarta process is at such a dead end."

But time is probably on Indonesia's side as world attention moves elsewhere. And analysts say the United Nations Security Council is in any case unlikely to create a tribunal, given strong objections by Russia and China, which may fear similar probes into their actions in Chechnya and Tibet.

And so the tiny courthouse in Dili — with its ill-prepared staff, its shortage of translators, its missing records, its lack of a court reporter or copy machine, its confused schedule and its inadequate budget — is for the moment the sole venue for justice for this ravaged country.

Prosecutors misplace their indictments, the police misplace defendants who are free on bail and cases recess in midstream when foreign judges break for vacations. No money has been allocated to house and support witnesses from outside Dili.

But the process has begun. The first two convictions for murder — cases that were not treated as crimes against humanity — have been handed down in the last two weeks. In what seemed a pointed demonstration of evenhandedness, one 12-year sentence was given to a member of the militias and one 7- year sentence was given to a member of the pro-independence forces who had killed a militia member.

The seeming lightness of the sentence against the militia member caused an outcry among some spectators and there is concern here that the judicial process may not satisfy the need of many East Timorse for an accounting.

The United Nations is preparing a parallel "truth and reconciliation" program in the hope of defusing this discontent and of handling the hundreds of cases that would overwhelm the tiny Dili courthouse.

Desite its inadequacies, the court here has begun to create both a mechanism and a culture of due process. And for both Lisete Quintão, 28, a public defender, and for her clients, each step is a revelation.

Mrs. Quintão, who studied law in Jakarta, said she struggles between her personal feelings and her dedication to the system she is helping put in place.

Asked how she felt about defending the people who ravaged her country, she said: "Oh, gosh, that's a difficult situation for me. Sometimes I am angry at all the militia for doing these things to me and my family and my friends and everyone. But then, you see, they may be bad men but they have the right to a good trial and a fair trial. We cannot just say, `You did wrong.' We have to prove it first."

Two of the Alpha Militia defendants are her clients, including one, João da Costa, who is accused of gratuitous brutality in the course of the murders. He is not a very nice person, she said.

She said she has spent hours with him reviewing the case and explaining his rights.

"When I met him, he said to me, `You have come to judge me, to convict me,"' Mrs. Quintão recalled. "And I said, `No, I have come to tell you that you have rights, to this and this and this. You have the right to a fair trial. You can defend yourself in court and I will help you."'

He was surprised, she said. "He asked me, `We can do this?' And I told him, `Yes!'"

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