Subject: Age: Torture jail now a peace centre

The Age February 18, 2003

Torture jail now a peace centre

By Jill Jolliffe Dili

President Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's most famous former prisoner, yesterday inaugurated a former torture chamber as a reconciliation centre, with a wish that torture would never again occur in East Timor.

"I hope that this building, so long steeped in tragedy, can be a living centre to document the history of East Timor... so that young people can learn about the past and... make a commitment to protect human rights forever," he said, cutting the ribbon to the renovated Balide prison, where thousands were tortured during 24 years of Indonesian occupation.

The ceremony opened two days of public hearings by former prisoners, sponsored by East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. The hearings cover the period from Portugal's announced decolonisation in April 1974 to Indonesia's withdrawal in 1999, and include evidence from a man tortured by Fretilin guerillas in 1977, when the now-governing party maltreated and executed dissidents.

UN administrator Kamalesh Sharma told former prisoners: "I want to pay my respects... you stand for the many colleagues who did not survive."

It is the first time since 1999 that the former prisoners have spoken publicly. The 13 testifying include several people tortured by the Indonesian army in the Balide jail.

The youngest witness, Maria Pereira, entered it in 1976 aged five with her mother. During four years she saw her mother severely tortured and was later tortured herself. During the renovation, she planted a special garden in the courtyard of the prison.

The first prisoner to testify was Bernardino Vilanova, jailed in June 1980 for his part in an uprising in Dili. He was first held in an Indonesian barracks.

"They said I was withholding information about the Church's involvement," he testified emotionally. "I refused to disclose anything, and they began to administer electric shocks and burn me with cigarettes."

The commission began work last year and its "truth-seeking" division has so far collected testimony on human rights violations from 2500 citizens. It has no power to prosecute perpetrators.

The old Portuguese jail was restored by Tasmanian firm Pitt & Sherry with $US1 million from Japan. A former prisoner was shocked to see that only some of the graffiti in his old cell was kept. "It makes me angry," he said. "It was part of my life."


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