Subject: The Australian: East Timor puts justice to one side

The Australian May 04, 2002

East Timor puts justice to one side

By Don Greenlees in Jakarta

THREE years after East Timor was laid waste by Indonesian military-sponsored militia, the country's President-elect, Xanana Gusmao, declared yesterday that justice for the perpetrators would take a back seat to social development in the priorities of the first independent East Timorese Government.

Despite the snail's pace of justice in East Timor and Indonesia, Mr Gusmao warned East Timor could ill-afford an obsession with trying militiamen or soldiers because of the enormous poverty of its people.

"Justice, yes. Justice. (But) my priority is social justice," Mr Gusmao said on a visit to Jakarta. "We fought, we suffered, we died for what? To try other people or to receive benefits from independence?"

Mr Gusmao, the former guerilla leader who was elected East Timor's first president last month, has previously advocated amnesties to entice former militia leaders back to East Timor.

He hopes a program of amnesties could support reconciliation between nationalists and those still loyal to Indonesia and encourage about 60,000 East Timorese to return from refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor.

For East Timor's diplomatic relations and its domestic politics, the issue of prosecutions is highly sensitive. When Indonesian forces retreated after the independence referendum in 1999, militiamen and soldiers laid waste to the territory in a spree of looting and arson. UN officials estimate between 1500 and 2000 people were murdered.

With a declaration of independence due to be made on May 20, East Timor's new democratic leaders are anxious to avoid demands for retribution poisoning their efforts to build national cohesion or a viable relationship with Jakarta.

During talks in Bali in February, the Chief Minister in East Timor's UN administration, and soon-to-be government leader, Mari Alkatiri, pointedly refrained from putting any pressure on the Indonesian side to try senior civilian and military officials accused of human rights crimes.

Indeed, the purpose of Mr Gusmao's one-day visit to Jakarta on Thursday was to foster ties with Indonesia -- East Timor's most important diplomatic relationship. He came to reinforce an invitation from the UN to President Megawati Sukarnoputri to attend the May 20 independence celebration in the face of strong domestic pressure on her to decline.

As a result of international pressure, particularly from the US Congress and members of the European Union, Indonesia has started to put some of those accused of the 1999 rampage on trial.

But no one has yet been convicted and a number of key suspects have so far not been included on the list of planned prosecutions. A handful of relatively junior militiamen have been tried and convicted in East Timor.

At a press confidence yesterday, Mr Gusmao stressed that in a country where many people "live with less than 50 cents" a day the overwhelming priority of the new government would be to improve living standards.

He suggested that dispensing criminal justice needed to be balanced against the need to fulfil that goal.

"I am not a human rights activist. I am not a judge. I am not a prosecutor," he said. "As President, my priority is how to give to our people the opportunity to see the benefits of independence."

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