Subject: The Australian: Day of reckoning for East Timor

The Australian March 16, 2002

Day of reckoning for East Timor

By Don Greenlees, Jakarta correspondent

POLICE chief Timbul Silaen is only hours away from a crowded courtroom in Jakarta, where prosecutors will accuse him of condoning mass murder.

It is a moment that has haunted him since the day Indonesia's attorney-general added his name to a list of 22 people accused of taking party in the destruction of East Timor in 1999.

As he contemplates his imminent reckoning with the law, Brigadier-General Silaen is trying hard to maintain a veneer of good humour over a cup of sweet, black tea in the coffee shop of the Sahid Jaya Hotel. But he is plainly troubled.

"I have been waiting too long, I'm tired," he says. "Psychologically, it hasn't been good for me."

It is Tuesday evening. Brigadier-General Silaen is talking a lot, and very quickly. He says his two children, studying in the US, rang him in tears after hearing defendants in the East Timor human rights trials could face the death penalty if convicted.

"I told them, 'Your dad is not summoned because of corruption, your dad is summoned because he did his duty'. I told them, 'Your dad is not a war criminal'."

By Thursday morning, Mr Silaen is restlessly prowling the corridor outside the court, trying hard to look confident and relaxed. Inside the courtroom, five judges of a special human rights tribunal have just begun hearing an hour-long indictment against former East Timor governor Abilio Soares.

Mr Soares, a man with a boxer's physique and a tattoo across his knuckles, is accused of ignoring the participation of subordinates in five 1999 massacres in which 117 people were killed.

Brigadier-General Silaen will soon take Mr Soares's chair, placed alone and directly in front of the judges' bench. His alleged crimes are similar, although prosecutors also accuse him of being directly responsible for "crimes against humanity" because he was in charge of security in the territory.

The police chief had his lawyers read out a statement in his defence. They claim the tribunal has no jurisdiction to hear the charges, and say human rights abuses in East Timor were caused by the bias of the UN mission that supervised the 1999 independence referendum.

Four hours after the hearing began, the judges adjourned the case for a week.

It was a small, but important, start. About 2¬Ĺ years after Indonesia lost the referendum and its security forces and militia left a trail of bloodshed and destruction on their way out, Brigadier-General Silaen and Mr Soares this week became the first to face prosecution in Indonesia for the crimes.

For Indonesia, a lot hinges on this legal process, not least the restoration of military ties with the US. But Indonesia's slow and uneven progress to justice over the human rights abuses in East Timor has left many foreign and domestic observers suspicious over whether the true culprits will ever be brought to account.

Members of an expert panel that advised on prosecutions and a National Human Rights Commission team that investigated the crimes in East Timor say the attorney-general's office ignored arguments to put senior generals on trial, including former armed forces commander General Wiranto, because of political expediency.

They warn that the courts will only do the bare minimum to satisfy the international community that justice is being served.

Many local activists and officials of the UN and foreign governments regard the first two defendants, Brigadier-General Silaen and Mr Soares, as no more than bit players and possible scapegoats for the real masterminds in savaging East Timor.

The UN political affairs chief in East Timor, Colin Stewart, says: "He (Silaen) may have been involved in some things, but he definitely is not a big fish."

Echoing the views of many Western diplomats who were in East Timor for the UN-supervised referendum in 1999, Mr Stewart said he was sorry for the police chief because he was "personally aware of steps Timbul Silaen took to protect people".

In January 2000, a National Human Rights Commission investigation ‚€“ the most thorough inquiry into those events ‚€“ gave a confidential list of 116 names to the attorney-general, in addition to a high-priority list that named seven generals. The full list, obtained by The Weekend Australian, cites crimes by 31 soldiers and police, including several colonels.

But by the time the attorney-general's office released the names of "suspects" in connection with the atrocities in East Timor on September 1, 2000, the long list of military officers and militiamen had been whittled down to only 19. A few weeks later, officials added another four names.

There were some glaring omissions. Most notable were General Wiranto and the man he appointed to liaise with the UN, Major-General Zacky Anwar Makarim, a former intelligence chief and special forces officer with long experience in East Timor.

At least one member of the Human Rights Commission investigation believes General Wiranto's name was excluded because of a deal between him, then attorney-general Marzuki Darusman and then president Abdurrahman Wahid. According to this theory, General Wiranto's exclusion from prosecution was the price of his agreeing to go quietly from Mr Wahid's cabinet in early 2000. General Wiranto stood down as security minister during the human rights group's investigation of the East Timor massacres.

Retired Lieutenant-General Hasnan Habib, who joined the expert advisory panel on East Timor prosecutions, accuses the attorney-general's office of being "a little timid" in their approach.

"I would say they didn't try too hard," he says. "I didn't personally believe Wiranto was guilty of ordering those people to be killed ‚€“ there is some evidence he issued orders to prevent things going out of control, but he was responsible for peace before, during and after the referendum. He cannot be free of accountability for that."

The question the critics ask now is whether the human rights tribunal, established under special legislation in 2000, and prosecutors within the attorney-general's office are capable of extending the judicial process to the most senior ranks of the armed forces. So far, the highest-ranked military suspects to be named are one major-general and one brigadier.

A great deal will depend on how successful the prosecutors, in cross-examining suspects and witnesses, are in bringing to light the actions of senior commanders. But there are doubts about whether important witnesses will be available, and if those available will be willing to talk.

UN officials acknowledge that many East Timorese are, not surprisingly, reluctant to go to Indonesia to give evidence, despite President Megawati Sukarnoputri's signature this week on a regulation setting up a witness protection program.

One hope is that at least some of those on the inside will be forced to reveal a few uncomfortable truths under oath. When asked about what he will have to say in court, Brigadier-General Silaen gives an answer that might cause some unease among army veterans of the 1999 operation in East Timor.

"If I am asked as a witness about the military, then I will tell what I know."

Back to March menu

World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from