Subject: PNS: Will Bush Do the Right Thing in East Timor?

Will Bush Do the Right Thing in East Timor?

Pacific News Service, Aderito De Jesus Soares, 08/29/2002

The first verdicts of Indonesia's ad hoc human rights court are in, and the results mock East Timor -- exonerating Indonesian military officials of atrocities. Washington needs to take the lead in establishing an independent international tribunal for East Timor, argues PNS commentator Aderito de Jesus Soares, and must beware of strengthening ties to Jakarta's army.


Indonesia's ad hoc human rights court recently mocked East Timor's demands for justice by acquitting Indonesian police and military officials for massacres and atrocities committed in l999.

The verdicts reflect the deep flaws of Indonesia's justice system and show how the country exists in the grip of a powerful and brutal military establishment.

They also point to the need for an international tribunal for East Timor, and point to the danger of the Bush administration's efforts to resume ties to Indonesia's military.

The ad hoc court issued its first verdicts -- other defendants remain to be tried -- on the crimes against humanity committed by Indonesian authorities in East Timor with six acquittals. It also sentenced former East Timor governor Abilio Soares to three years in prison for failing to "manage his subordinates effectively."

The investigations by journalists, human rights groups and United Nations establish that the acquitted officers played a direct role in the terror surrounding the 1999 United Nations-run ballot on independence in East Timor. Eyewitnesses said that four of them directed a massacre of scores of refugees and three priests in the churchyard of the town of Suai. Another of the acquitted, Police Chief Timbul Silaen, has been implicated by investigators in advocating and planning atrocities, while failing to control those under his command.

The only person convicted by the court, Abilio Soares, was also the only one who wasn't Indonesian. Soares was one of the few East Timorese who supported Indonesia's 1975 invasion of this writer's homeland. In 1999, he helped establish the "militias"--paramilitary groups that provided a thin cover for military atrocities. But overall, Soares was a bit player in a horrific drama orchestrated at the highest levels of Indonesia's military-political establishment.

More than 200,000 East Timorese--about one-third of the pre-1975 population--lost their lives from war and famine as a result of Indonesia's invasion and 23-year occupation. In September, 1999, after the population voted overwhelmingly for independence, the Indonesian military and its militia launched a final wave of terror. In three weeks, they destroyed 70 percent of the territory's buildings and infrastructure, forcibly deported about 250,000 persons to Indonesia, killed at least 2,000, and raped untold numbers of women.

In January, 2000, a U.N. investigative commission reported that "a pattern of serious violations of fundamental human rights" had taken place in East Timor and took "the view that ultimately the Indonesian Army was responsible for the intimidation, terror, killings, and other acts of violence." On this basis, the commission recommended the establishment of an ad-hoc international human rights tribunal to cover only crimes committed in 1999. But instead of following through, the U.N. Security Council accepted Jakarta's demand that Indonesia first have the chance to prosecute the accused within its own court system.

The jurisdiction of that court is even more limited than that envisioned by the United Nations: it will only prosecute crimes committed in April, and September, 1999, and in only three of East Timor's 13 districts. In addition, the indictments focus on mid-level authorities and suggest little more than criminal negligence, rather than systematic atrocities organized at the highest levels. According to Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, an independent multinational conflict prevention organization, this means that regardless of the outcome of the trials, "the gravity of what occurred in East Timor will remain hidden and the concept of crimes against humanity will be trivialized."

Indonesia's very presence in East Timor was a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and international law. Moreover, Indonesia's 1999 rampage violated a U.N.-brokered agreement in which Jakarta promised to provide "a secure environment" during the U.N.-run ballot process. A failure to prosecute those responsible--not only for 1999, but also for the 23 previous years of atrocities--would be a significant blow to international peace, security, and legal mechanisms.

Many of the world's most powerful countries--most significantly the United States--provided billions of dollars in military and economic assistance, as well as diplomatic cover to Indonesia's original invasion of my homeland, and a generation of illegal occupation. Washington has a special obligation to ensure justice for the East Timorese.

The Bush administration supports an international tribunal to try leaders of the former Yugoslavia, where nationalist sentiment would have left at liberty those responsible for heinous crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo. It has supported a tribunal to prosecute leaders from Rwanda, where an already crippled judicial system is overwhelmed with jailed foot soldiers of the 1994 genocide. Washington must take the initiative at the United Nations to set up an international tribunal for East Timor to credibly try those that Jakarta has clearly demonstrated it will not.

Congress must resist the Bush administration's attempt to resume ties with the Indonesian military in the name of fighting terrorism. Peace and security in the huge Indonesian archipelago can only come about when the military's leadership is forced to account for its own terrorism.

Soares is the founder of the East Timor National Jurists Association and a member of the country's constituent assembly.

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