Subject: SMH/E.Timor: Fears for witnesses as militiaman escapes

Sydney Morning Herald March 7, 2001

Fears for witnesses as militiaman escapes

By Mark Dodd, Herald Correspondent in Dili

A manhunt is underway across East Timor for a pro-Indonesian militiaman who escaped from jail while serving a 12-year sentence for manslaughter during the 1999 violence.

Joao Fernandes, convicted of stabbing to death a village chief during a massacre in September 1999 at Maliana police station, apparently sawed his way through the ceiling of Gleno jail on Thursday.

Until yesterday, an embarrassed United Nations administration had tried to hide the details, to the annoyance of the UN civilian police, who fear retaliatory action against trial witnesses and East Timorese prosecutors if Fernandes finds safe haven across the border in Indonesian West Timor.

On the same night Fernandes escaped, another inmate, Domingos da Costa, 29, serving a 15-year term for murder, escaped in a similar fashion from the same jail. He also remains at large, along with a serial rapist, Sergio Castro, who broke out of Dili's Becora jail on Monday by sawing through iron bars in his cell.

Castro, who has a history of rape dating back to Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, was due to be sentenced yesterday.

Civilian police sources said Fernandes knew the identity of several key witnesses in murder investigations in Maliana, and they could now be in serious danger.

Fernandes is also aware of UN investigations into serious crimes committed by pro-Indonesian militias and their army backers during the bloody violence that followed the 1999 independence referendum.

The former member of the Dadurus Merah Putih (Red and White Tornado) militia received a reduced jail sentence after promising to co-operate with UN investigators by revealing the names of senior Indonesian military officials responsible for planning and instigating political violence in Maliana.

Gleno jail is about 40 kilometres south-west of Dili in highland coffee-growing country - ideal for hiding out. No explanation has been given by UN authorities on how all three men were able to bring tools into jail and saw their way to freedom.

Meanwhile, the acting commander of the UN peacekeeping force has predicted East Timor's security situation will continue to improve but questioned whether Indonesian police and military would be able to deal with East Timorese militiamen who fled to West Timor after the 1999 violence.

"The real question is do the Indonesian authorities ... have the capability to prevent the militia operating in West Timor," Major-General Mike Smith told reporters in Dili. The Australian general is scheduled to leave East Timor tomorrow after a 14-month tour of duty.

On Sunday evening Australian troops and suspected paramilitaries clashed near the border with West Timor.

Soldiers opened fired on two gunmen after one of them took aim at an observation post. The men retreated into West Timor after the clash. 

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