Subject: ST: East Timor atrocities: Submit to international tribunal

AUG 15, 2003 East Timor atrocities: Submit to international tribunal


SPARE a thought for the judges who heard cases of atrocities at Indonesia's special crimes tribunal for the former East Timor: With almost every major international human rights group slamming the trials of 18 former officials as an unabashed 'whitewash', these are put-upon, mercurial justices of the law.

Most of the Indonesian military and civilian officials - charged with crimes against humanity and, in some cases, genocide - have been let off the hook, acquitted by the court in Jakarta before the dust had even settled on the gavel's opening strike.

However, in a surprise verdict in the final trial last week, the court sentenced the former military commander of East Timor - now Timor Leste - to three years' jail, despite the fact that prosecutors had requested the charges be dropped for lack of substantive evidence.

Major-General Adam Damiri had denied responsibility for failing to stop his underlings from brutally slaying 153 people in five separate massacres in the former Indonesian province, and for subsequently not bringing the officers to justice.

He maintains that he was 'not in the field' at the time, stationed as he was on the resort island of Bali. It is thus highly likely that he, along with five other military and civilian personnel convicted, will appeal the verdict.

This means the tribunal, set up to assuage international outrage over the killings of around 1,000 Timorese, has so far failed to put anyone behind bars for the atrocity.

Stonewalling the trials is undoubtedly the all-powerful Indonesian military machine, which is experiencing a return to glory after the downfall of former president Suharto in 1998. The armed forces chiefs now have a willing ally in the administration of President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Acquiescing to international pressure, Jakarta established its ad hoc court early last year. And for a while, it seemed keen to comply and hold to account those responsible for the mayhem in the former Portuguese colony it annexed in 1975.

But not for long. Soon, in case after case, officials either walked free or were meted out minor sentences. Jocular scenes in military personnel-filled courtrooms were the norm as those accused thumbed their noses at the pseudo-proceedings.

The new government of Timor Leste has been remarkably subdued in its response to growing concerns over the direction the trials have taken - apart from Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, who called for the establishment of a United Nations-backed tribunal, but was quickly silenced.

President Xanana Gusmao has adopted a courting stance towards Jakarta. Rather than lash out at the Indonesian government over the trials' outcome, he has remained mute on the subject, and it can only be assumed that he sees cordial relations with the former colonial master as the best way forward for the world's newest nation, and among its most impoverished.

The outcome of the Damiri case, however, seems to have been the straw that broke a strained camel's back for Timor Leste. Days after the verdict was handed down, Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta hit out at what he called a lenient sentence, but - again refuting overseas trials - passed the buck to the European Union (EU) and the United States to press for a foreign-based tribunal to re-hear the cases.

With human rights groups increasingly calling for the establishment of an international court to re-hear the cases - similar to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, where ailing former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic is being tried - it seems increasingly likely that momentum among concerned governments and institutions might see one come about.

In the latest broadside on Indonesia, the EU, Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland issued a joint statement last week condemning the tribunal for having 'have failed to deliver justice' and chided prosecutors for not presenting evidence from UN and independent Indonesian investigators.

The State Department in Washington also voiced its dismay.

Even if an international court sees the light of day, though, it is clear that the military chieftains in Indonesia would simply snub it. Buoyed by domestic and international support for its current war against separatist rebels in Aceh province, the military is flexing its muscles as it revels in its return to glory days.

However, there are dark days ahead for Indonesia, with cascading criticism of the military at the vanguard of an impending downward spiral.

A recent editorial in The New York Times on last week's deadly hotel bombing in Jakarta warned that Indonesia 'is acquiring a reputation as a soft target for international terrorism' due largely to 'chronic misgovernment'.

'Helping fight terror in Indonesia should not mean handing unchecked power to its already unaccountable army, which remains repressive more than five years after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship.'

Now, authorities are considering draconian legislation akin to Singapore and Malaysia's Internal Security Act, laws that would give broad powers of arrest and indefinite detention.

Coordinating Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono even went as far as saying, in the wake of the Jakarta bombing, that basic human rights could be forsaken in the interests of looking after the common folk.

If such a scenario comes to pass, we could see a roll-back to the days before former president Abdurrahman Wahid separated the dual role of the military and police, when the military adopted overall responsibility for maintaining order.

Not only has the man who was chief of the Indonesian military in 1999, General Wiranto, not been indicted, but he has also opted to contest Indonesia's first direct presidential elections next year, and his ballot bid is now in full swing.

However, whatever the political machinations in Jakarta, there remains a strong desire among foreign nations and global organisations to see that justice is done over Timor Leste.

To that end, Jakarta would be well served to meet demands for an international tribunal - and ensure indicted former military officers and civilian officials are given a plane ticket.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Jakarta.

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