Subject: NYT: Indonesia Clears 6 of Rights Abuses in East Timor Killings

The New York Times August 15, 2002 -late edition-

Indonesia Clears 6 of Rights Abuses in East Timor Killings


JAKARTA, Indonesia, Aug. 15 -- An Indonesian human rights court today acquitted six military and police officials of crimes against humanity in East Timor in violence that erupted after a pro-independence vote three years ago, a verdict that did not please the Bush administration as it seeks to rebuild military ties here.

Five of the accused were on trial for failing to stop a massacre at the Ave Maria Church in Suai, in which at least 27 people, including three priests, were killed. The killings were documented afterward as the most cold-blooded of the violence that consumed the territory after a vote for independence in September 1999.

Among those acquitted was the former regional police commander, Brig. Gen. Timbul Silaen, who was responsible for the security surrounding the ballot, which was sponsored by the United Nations.

Anxious to renew its relationship with the police and military of the world's most populous Muslim country, the Bush administration announced new assistance for the Indonesian police this month. The program is designed to help Indonesia build a police counter-terrorism unit, American officials said.

In addition, Washington said it would permit Indonesian Army officers to go to the United States for limited training but underscored that a more robust training program would unfold if the military showed some accountability for what happened in East Timor.

Today's verdicts were a disappointment, an American official said. At a time when the United States is trying to "reach out" to Indonesia, the official said, the court's decision would not be helpful.

After today's verdicts, which were applauded by people gathered in the courtroom, human rights experts said that the prosecutors failed to bring effective cases. They said that key evidence established by Indonesia's own Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Violations in East Timor, and the United Nations International Commission of Inquiry, was ignored. Several witnesses from East Timor refused to appear before the court because the Indonesian government refused to guarantee their security, they said.

American officials had expressed some confidence that the Indonesian government would live up to the reassurances they said were expressed in private that Indonesia would do the "right thing" in the trials arising from the East Timor violence. But Indonesia has always been intent on not appearing to having its sovereignty interfered with and President Megawati Sukarnoputri has been careful to steer a fairly neutral foreign policy.

Four of the six defendants today were officers of the Indonesian Army, which has regained some of its lost stature during the yearlong presidency of Mrs. Megawati.

The Bush administration has managed to overcome much of the resistance in Congress to renewing military ties with Indonesia. American military assistance, already at a fairly reduced level by 1999, was severed by the Clinton administration after the East Timor bloodletting.

Today's verdicts could slow down what the administration hoped would be a fairly smooth path to the resumption of healthy military relations.

The commander in chief of United States forces in the Pacific, Adm. Thomas Fargo, who was in Jakarta today, suggested the need for the Indonesian military to face up to the past.

Speaking just before the verdicts were announced, the admiral said: "It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the legal proceedings, but obviously a large part of our effort is to encourage accountability and reform."

There had been some hope among American officials that the admiral would be here as the human rights trials announced some convictions.

On Wednesday, a civilian, the former governor of East Timor, Abilio Soares, was found guilty of committing crimes against humanity for failing to control subordinates and was sentenced to three years in prison.

According to Amnesty International, which monitored the cases of Mr. Soares and the six officers acquitted today, the trials were "seriously flawed."

Several published accounts of the massacre at Suai tell of Major Sugito, the military commander in the town and one of those acquitted today, leading the attack on the church. The Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in East Timor said in its report that 50 people died during the massacre. Other reports said 27 were killed which corresponds to the number of bodies found in three burial sites allegedly arranged by Major Sugito. The evidence given to the human rights commission regarding Major Sugito was not presented by the prosecution.

The trials of 11 other suspects involved in the East Timor violence, including several senior military officials but not the top generals of the period, are still in progress.

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