Subject: GU: In pursuit of the truth

Guardian (UK)

Jakarta dispatch

In pursuit of the truth

East Timor is moving towards reconciliation, writes John Aglionby, but not without a painful struggle

Thursday January 17, 2002

The last Indonesian soldier of occupation left East Timor well over two years ago, but while many of the physical scars have healed, the mental and psychological trauma sustained during the previous quarter of a century of turbulence, invasion and brutal occupation is still raging.

After weeks of delay, a significant element of the healing process took a major step forward today when the names of the seven national commissioners of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation and their rough schedule were announced.

Vaguely based on the South African model, this body will seek the truth behind the thousands of human rights violations between the withdrawal of the colonial master, Portugal, in 1974, and the arrival of the UN transitional administrators in October 1999, following the massive post-independence referendum violence.

Armed with this knowledge, the commission will then attempt to facilitate "community reconciliation agreements" between perpetrators and victims in less serious cases, such as looting, burning and minor assault. Cases involving murder, rape and orchestrated violence will have to be processed through the courts.

In a bid to show some recognition of the lingering sympathy for Jakarta rule in some quarters, one of the commissioners is a former pro-Jakarta politician; the others are lawyers, human rights activists and a priest.

The following admission, quoted in a recent UN document, by a widow living near the border with Indonesia highlights all too clearly that a confusing cocktail of emotions is still swirling in many people's hearts and minds. She said: "Sometimes I get so angry I could go crazy and what I want most of all would be to have all the perpetrators killed. And then, at other times, I think: but my husband is dead, nothing can bring him back, not even revenge."

There is a natural contradiction between, on the one hand, repatriating potential perpetrators of crimes against humanity and reconciliation and, on the other, seeking justice for victims - as demonstrated by the very public spat this month between the UN official in charge of repatriating the tens of thousands of East Timorese still in West Timor and his colleague responsible for reshaping the justice system.

No one disputes that East Timor is only going to put its past behind it once it has resolved this conundrum and, as things stand, there are still at least three major obstacles in the way that make the speedy inception of the reconciliation commission a high priority.

The first is that the wheels of justice are turning so slowly, it would be years before everyone who committed a crime during the period saw the inside of a courtroom - although, to be fair, the sluglike pace of six months ago has accelerated into a snailesque stumble.

Linked to that is the sheer number of people who are seeking either retribution or pardoning. It is highly unlikely that a single family among the population of 800,00 did not suffer directly at some point in the two and a half decades of violence. But the commissioners hope that with six regional commissions, in addition to the main body, most of the people who want to testify will be given the opportunity to do so during the two and a half years it will work.

What is out of East Timorese hands, however, is bringing the biggest fish to justice. To paraphrase a Human Rights Watch report on East Timor released this week, justice for the 1999 violence - not to mention the previous 24 years - remains "elusive" primarily because the main suspects are safely ensconced in Indonesia.

After months of procrastination, it appears that special tribunals for 19 alleged human rights violators during April and September 1999 will begin within the next few weeks in Jakarta. The cases have been ready for ages, but President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has very close links to the military, only announced the names of the judges this week.

Not only are many people questioning the ability of this ad hoc court to deliver justice, but they are exasperated at the fact that the most senior generals, such as the then armed forces chief, General Wiranto, and the intelligence commander in East Timor for much of 1999, Major General Zacky Anwar, are not among those indicted.

So it remains highly unlikely that the commission will be able to close the book on East Timor's recent dark decades, but as the nation's spiritual leader, Nobel peace laureate Bishop Carlos Belo, said: "It is the best step forward."

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