Subject: NZHerald: Dialogue: Timor war criminals should face UN trial

Dialogue: Timor war criminals should face UN trial

NZ Herald 28.02.2002

New Zealand should call for an independent international tribunal to bring those responsible for atrocities in East Timor to justice, says MAIRE LEADBEATER*.

The appearance of Slobodan Milosevic before the Criminal Tribunal in the Hague is being welcomed as a breakthrough for the international rule of law.

If he is convicted, supporters of the United Nations Tribunal believe that dictators and human rights abusers around the world will know that they will be held to account.

But when will the victims of war crimes in East Timor see justice? Instead of an international tribunal they are offered only a piecemeal process that relies - bizarrely - on the co-operation of the very Government responsible for their suffering.

Seventeen Indonesian soldiers and militiamen have just been indicted by UN prosecutors in East Timor, but there is little hope that they will be extradited, since Megawati Sukarnoputri's Government has backed out of an earlier agreement to co-operate with the UN.

Notorious militia leader Eurico Guterres is one of those charged but he now heads the youth wing of the President's party, and defiantly denies that he had anything to do with the crimes.

Pressured by the international community, Indonesia has agreed to mount its own human rights trials, but they are unlikely to be other than showcase pieces.

President Megawati has approved the 18 ad hoc judges - unknown names mostly from academic backgrounds, including one who previously worked for the Indonesian military. The list of suspects is limited to a tiny handful of scapegoats - just 18 people.

The commander-in-chief of the time, General Wiranto, is not named, nor are numerous other militia and military leaders prominently associated with genocide in East Timor. The tribunal will be limited to considering only human rights abuses which took place in the final year of East Timor's occupation.

Instead of facing a trial, Major General Syafrie Syamsuddin, a former Kopassus special forces officer, has just been appointed official spokesman for the Indonesian armed forces. He was was military commander at the time of the May 1998 riots that brought down the dictator Suharto and is widely believed to have contributed to the planning for the 1999 scorched-earth campaign in East Timor.

Several other military officers who were responsible for egregious crimes in East Timor now hold high office within the armed forces or in the Government.

Lieutenant-General Adam Damiri was overall commander of East Timor at the time of the mayhem and was identified by the Indonesian investigation into East Timor crimes. He is now the Army's assistant chief of staff for operational affairs, which puts him in control of troop deployment, including troops sent to war-torn Aceh and West Papua .

It is also business as usual for Major General Mahidin Simbolon, who has a long and nefarious history of involvement with East Timor's tragedy. He was involved in Operation Seroja (the 1975 invasion) and he was in command positions in the lead-up to the devastating 1999 campaign of violence and destruction.

Dubbed "Black Simbolon", he is held by many personally responsible for creating the militia units.

Now provincial military chief in West Papua, he responded to the discovery of the battered and wounded body of Theys Eluay, leader of the West Papuan Presidium, by suggesting that he probably died of a heart attack.

Last December President Megawati gave ominous instructions to her troops. She explicitly told them not to be held back by fear of being accused of war crimes. She said force was necessary to "hold the country together".

In the first week of September 1999, at the nadir of East Timor's post-referendum crisis, deadly militia units backed by the Indonesian military were threatening East Timor with total destruction.

More than 200,000 civilians were forced to flee the country at gunpoint. The New Zealand Government was wringing its collective hands. The Foreign Minister at the time, Don McKinnon, limply observed that peacekeepers could not be sent because there was "no peace to keep".

Days later the dynamics changed and finally, after 24 years of terror and brutality, Indonesia's last assault provoked a tidal wave of international protest.

The United States on September 10, 1999, cut off military ties and threatened economic reprisals; Australia and New Zealand immediately followed suit.

May 20 will be East Timor's date with destiny when independence will be formally proclaimed. But the euphoria should not be an excuse to sweep crimes against humanity under the carpet, nor to turn a blind eye to ongoing military abuses in Indonesia.

The Bush Administration is planning to give Indonesia millions of dollars for police training, increased intelligence sharing, and "anti-terrorism" training. This move is set to undermine the congressional ban, which states that military training must not resume until all the East Timorese refugees have been allowed to return and the war criminals brought to trial.

Right up to the mayhem that followed the 1999 East Timor referendum, New Zealand gave Indonesia significant backing - supplying favourable votes in the United Nations and military training accompanied by little more than gentle diplomatic mouthings about human rights.

Of course we were not alone. Recently released confidential papers prove, as some always suspected, that United States President Ford and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were fully briefed about the invasion of East Timor, and approved of it. But surely that increases our responsibility as a small nation to take an independent foreign policy lead. New Zealand should call for an independent international tribunal to bring the war criminals to justice, and to support the Indonesian people who are still subject to the actions of a powerful and ruthless military.

* Maire Leadbeater leads the Indonesia Human Rights Committee in Auckland. 2cbc82f.jpg

Indonesia Human Rights Committee is a solidarity organization which aims to build links between the people of New Zealand and Indonesia by developing network with the groups in Indonesia dan around the world who are working for human rights and democracy in Indonesia. Being interested is not enough, get involved!

IHRC, P.O. Box 68 419, Newton, Auckland. Phone/fax: 64-9- 376 9098, Email:

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