Subject: SMH: Cloud Over Army Role In East Timor

Sydney Morning Herald

February 20, 2004 Friday

News And Features; Leaders; Pg. 8

Cloud Over Army Role In East Timor

The rumours started four years ago. SAS troops in conflict with an Indonesian-backed militia group near Suai on October 6, 1999 had overstepped the rules of battle. They had tortured East Timorese militiamen, the rumours said. They had kicked corpses. They had taken photographs of bodies as trophies. One militiaman had been executed. Eleven months later, the Australian Defence Force opened an investigation into 19 allegations of misconduct, without saying what they were.

Last April the chief of the army, Lieutenant-General Peter Leahy, said the investigation was complete. There had been no execution. Thirteen of the allegations were unsubstantiated. Four were substantiated and required improvements in management. One serviceman was disciplined over workplace and gender harassment, apparently during the investigation. Another was charged with mistreating a corpse. Lieutenant-General Leahy declined to release the report.

Disquiet persisted. Investigators complained that they received no co-operation from the SAS. Under pressure the army released details of the allegations that an Australian soldier's suicide was related to events in Suai; that a militiaman's arm was "unnecessarily amputated"; that prisoners were forced to look at dead colleagues. The serviceman's trial over the corpse-kicking charges was delayed, then abandoned, as witnesses backed away from their statements. In October the army announced that an internal review by the serviceman's commander had cleared him. This week, Lieutenant-General Leahy apologised to the serviceman for the length of the investigation and the procedures followed during it.

So here we are. Allegations serious enough to warrant a 3 1/2-year investigation were made, but the full report of the investigation was never released. The only charge brought was dismissed as witnesses wilted and sought levels of anonymity the court would not grant. None of the allegations was ever tested in court. The review said to clear the serviceman was conducted in secret. There is not the slightest hint of openness or transparency in any of this.

Last April, Lieutenant-General Leahy said: "The Australian army occupies a place of pride, trust and respect within the Australian community. We treasure this relationship, and once these allegations were made, there was no alternative than to conduct a thorough, rigorous and comprehensive review." He was half-right. To maintain that relationship, the army has no alternative but to ensure that serious allegations such as these are investigated openly, and the results are open to public scrutiny. Until that happens, doubts will persist.

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