Subject: SMH: A law unto themselves

Sydney Morning Herald

A law unto themselves

January 11 2003

The trials of Indonesian army officers accused of involvement in East Timor massacres have descended into farce. Once again, the military is seen as getting away with murder. Tom Hyland reports.

The accused sits with his seven lawyers in the listless heat of a Jakarta courtroom. He occasionally wipes his brow and shifts in his seat but mostly he is straight-backed, gazing with a soldier's practised stare into the middle distance. Major-General Tono Suratman, former Indonesian army commander in East Timor, seems bored.

In the witness chair, his former chief of staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Hardiono Saroso, is being questioned by the panel of judges about two of the worst massacres in East Timor in 1999 - the slaughter of up to 60 civilians at a church compound in Liquica on April 6, and the killing 11 days later of at least 12 people sheltering in the Dili house of a pro-independence figure.

In the space of 10 minutes he replies five times that he doesn't know; five times that he doesn't remember; and twice that he has no information. He is, however, able to say that the killings were carried out by machete.

Watching the performance are about 15 members of the army's notorious special forces, Kopassus. With them, but not in uniform, sits Major-General Zacky Anwar Makarim, a Kopassus veteran who is believed to have been in direct charge of a covert operation, authorised from Jakarta, to undermine East Timor's vote on independence and then destroy the country when the vote went against them. The conspicuous Kopassus presence is an act of solidarity and a symbol of the army's defiant unrepentance for the violence of 1999.

This week's performance in Indonesia's Human Rights Court confirms what human rights groups and independent observers have been saying for months: Jakarta's effort to bring officials to account for a murderous campaign of intimidation and revenge is a farce.

"It was just a show at the start and the continuation of this process has confirmed it's still just a show," says Hendardi, chairman of the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Foundation. He and other observers fear the trials have undermined Indonesia's efforts to end the culture of impunity that has surrounded the army, further tarnished the reputation of a scandal-plagued judiciary and set back attempts to establish civilian supremacy over the military.

If Suratman seems relaxed about the outcome of his trial - he is accused of failing to prevent the killings - then it's with good reason. Of the 18 people charged over the 1999 violence, 11 have been acquitted. Three have been found guilty, but all three are free on appeal, a process which could take years. Four other trials, including Suratman's, are still under way.

The special court was set up at a time of intense international pressure on Jakarta to bring to justice those responsible for the violence, with calls for an international tribunal to try those responsible. When Indonesia rejected this, the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, accepted Jakarta's promises to set up a credible court process that met international standards.

But critics say the process was flawed even before it began, with the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri lacking the political will to bring senior officers to justice. Officials who allegedly directed the violence - including former armed forces chief General Wiranto and Anwar - escaped charges, even though they had been named as suspects by Indonesian's National Human Rights Commission.

"TNI [the armed forces] has an interest in protecting these people so as not to create a precedent and Megawati still depends on the military to protect her position and power," says Hendardi. "From that point onward, it was a victory for the military and police. It set a precedent that the ad hoc court is just a mechanism to ease international pressure, not to uphold justice."

The flaws were compounded by the way government lawyers framed the charges, ignoring the military chain of command and charging mostly locally based officers, not their superiors. The charges portray the events of 1999 as a conflict between East Timorese factions in which Indonesian forces were bystanders, not the leading players.

The concerns of human rights groups at the start of the trials have been confirmed as they near their end. Human Rights Watch has labelled the trials a "sham" and a "whitewash" and called for the UN to commission an experts' report to examine the failure of the court. But most observers detect international indifference now that Western countries are seeking Indonesia's support to fight terrorism.

The war on terrorism has changed the entire international dynamic, says a senior UN official who has closely followed human rights issues in East Timor since 1999. "Now, the trials need to be just 1 per cent above a joke and they'll get away with it," the official said.

A foreign diplomat who has observed the trials agrees they are so flawed that, by any reasonable standard, all of the accused should be acquitted. But he predicts that the West will be constrained in response. Moves by Australia and the US to restore ties with the Indonesian military may be complicated by the trials, but "nobody will pull the plug on Indonesia".

Although the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has raised concerns about the trials privately with his counterpart Hassan Wirajuda, public comment has been muted, with Canberra holding off final judgement while appeals are pending. For his part, Wirajuda has rejected allegations of a whitewash and denied claims that the Government was responsible for the conduct of the trials.

For despondent Indonesian activists, the trials have profound implications for the future of Indonesian democracy. They had hoped to finally end the impunity of a military which for four decades has been allowed to get away with murder. Instead, they fear the military will be emboldened.

"If this case, despite strong international interest, can be ridiculed and manipulated, then it will be far worse in other cases - Aceh, Papua and elsewhere - where there is no international interest," says Hendardi.

A military determined to ensure the physical integrity of the nation will continue to use violence. But that violence may have the opposite effect. "If the East Timor cases are not settled properly, I'm afraid it will create a threat of disintegration to this country, because more people will think there can be no legal solution to the human rights abuses committed by the military," Henardi says.

This story was found at:

Back to January menu
December 2002
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from