Subject: AGE: Strongman weeps over his brutality

The Age Strongman weeps over his brutality

December 20, 2003

Telling a new tribunal the truth about past atrocities is not coming easily to the lips of some East Timor leaders, Jill Jolliffe reports from Dili.

The minister known as the strongman in East Timor's Government wept like a child as he confessed publicly to beating a prisoner during the 1975 civil war.

"I knew it was wrong, but he had killed my younger brother," Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato said.

"I lost control. I didn't kill him, but I beat him up twice, badly." He asked the community and the man's family for forgiveness.

In his frank admission that he violated human rights, Mr Lobato was in a minority among the 13 politicians who testified before the Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Dili this week.

The commission was formed in 2001 to reconcile communities divided by the militia violence of 1999, but also has a mandate to examine human rights violations committed between 1974 and 1999.

On Monday it began public hearings on the most sensitive of topics - the events leading to the six-week civil war that gave Indonesia the excuse it was seeking to invade and occupy the then Portuguese colony. The war between the nationalist parties Fretilin and the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) erupted in August 1975, with the Portuguese administration withdrawing at the height of the fighting.

The commission consists of seven commissioners who invited political leaders to acknowledge responsibility for the violence and seek forgiveness from their people. It warned them of the dangers of self-incrimination.

Most witnesses defended their party's version of the civil war history. All formally requested forgiveness but, with a few exceptions, the errors they admitted - such as promoting intolerance and lacking self-discipline - were so generalised as to be meaningless.

One of the first to testify was Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. When he concluded with the phrase: "I can state that I didn't do anything. I wasn't even (Fretilin) president or secretary," he was questioned impatiently by commissioner Jose Estevao.

Mr Estevao pointed out that the commission was dealing with human rights abuses, yet witnesses were engaging in politics. He accused witnesses of lacking courage. "Nobody accepts blame. I would like you, as a leader of Fretilin, to say whether Fretilin violated human rights," he said.

Timorese followed the hearings avidly, with keen interest in explanations for the killing of scores of prisoners Fretilin held in Dili when Indonesia invaded. Fretilin leaders took these prisoners to the mountains with them. Their bodies, and those of others held in local prisons, were found in mass graves in early 1976. They included senior leaders of the UDT party.

Mr Alkatiri said: "I'm not saying the people killed themselves. But I don't know who did. Because of the context, Fretilin accepts responsibility."

His view was contradicted by the ageing former president of Fretilin, Xavier do Amaral, whose frankness echoed that of Mr Lobato. "We were in the midst of war, we had no transport, medicines or food," he said. "Some of the prisoners were very ill. If we let them survive, they could have fallen into enemy hands, to be used against us. So we took a decision to kill them."

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