Subject: AU: Time runs out for Timor justice

The Australian

Time runs out for Timor justice

Sian Powell


IT now seems the United Nations is ready to end its investigations into the atrocities in East Timor in 1999, leaving hundreds of murders unresolved and a legacy of impunity likely to dog the infant nation in years to come.

There was diplomatic outrage when the Indonesian military and its militia proxies wrought carnage in East Timor in the months before and after 1999's independence ballot. The UN supported investigations into the atrocities and Indonesia felt compelled to set up its own ad hoc tribunal to examine the violence.

East Timor was hammered in those bloody months, with murders, rapes, lootings, assaults and the burning of whole villages. Priests were shot dead, nuns killed, children murdered, villagers beaten to death. The notion of an independent East Timor drove the Indonesian military and the militias to deadly violence. The international community was appalled.

But five years later, there is broad agreement that the UN-backed Serious Crimes Unit investigations into the killings will cease at the end of this month, with perhaps only half the murders examined.

Investigations by the unit into 1500 murders will wind up with only about 800 murder victims named on the indictments. The unit's chief, Nick Koumjian, concedes many murder cases have lain dormant since the investigations began. "Undoubtedly we will not have indicted every person involved in those killings," he says from his office in the East Timorese capital of Dili.

Overwhelmed by an enormous case-load and the difficulties of working in a poor and technologically unsophisticated infant nation, the unit's investigators did not even get to some of the places where the murders were less commonplace.

It was extremely difficult, Koumjian says, to estimate how many murders would go unresolved.

"Many I'd say, I'm sure the number is in the hundreds, but I don't exactly know."

About 60 people in East Timor have been convicted (most with extremely lenient sentences) for the atrocities. Two have been acquitted and a further 20 or so are awaiting their verdicts. Meanwhile, the masterminds in Indonesia have escaped scot-free, with just one conviction stemming from the Indonesian ad hoc tribunal's proceedings (and that conviction, of an East Timorese militia leader, is likely to be overturned).

On the eve of the Serious Crimes Unit investigations being shut down, probably for good, questions have been asked about the limits of justice for the East Timorese dead.

The US envoy to the UN, John Danforth, last week bluntly told the Security Council that the international community should take action.

"As we have stated numerous times, there must be accountability for the human rights violations committed in East Timor," he said. "The international community has a responsibility to address this issue."

The US wants a team of independent experts to go to East Timor and Indonesia to work out ways of providing justice. Analysts say it will never happen while the East Timorese Government rates good relations with Indonesia so highly and while Indonesia remains so jealous of its sovereignty.

East Timor is surrounded on three sides by Indonesia, a nation of 230 million people which invaded East Timor in 1975. So the tiny country of perhaps 925,000 people usually prefers realism to idealism.

East Timorese leaders have flatly refused to endorse calls for an international tribunal to examine the 1999 violence and privately say they will leave it to foreign governments to make demands for justice. Yet with the exception of a few forceful statements from the US, these demands are muted at best.

Reporting on the UN mission's past six months in East Timor, and recommending a further six-month extension (which was agreed to), UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently told the Security Council that various plans for justice were under consideration.

"As noted in my previous reports, it may not be possible for the serious crimes process to fully respond to the desire for justice of those affected by the violence in 1999 within the limited time and resources that remain available," Annan said.

Annan said the unit's investigative work had to be wound up because all the trials had to be finished by next May, as the council had stipulated. "I firmly believe that the perpetrators of the serious crimes committed in 1999 in East Timor should be brought to justice," he said.

"I repeat my previous call for the full co-operation of member states to ensure that impunity does not prevail."

The UN mission chief in East Timor, Sukehiro Hasegawa, also addressed the Security Council and explained that Annan would consider various options for the future, including the continuation of the current serious crimes process and an international tribunal or international truth and reconciliation commission.

Yet experts rate the chances of any of these options actually coming to fruition as extremely small.

Indonesia would not be happy about any of them.

East Timor is so concerned about Indonesian sensibilities that last year the Government refused to send an arrest warrant for former Indonesian armed forces chief Wiranto to Interpol, infuriating many ordinary East Timorese.

President Xanana Gusmao has repeatedly indicated he prefers reconciliation to the hunt for justice and was even photographed being hugged by Wiranto after a meeting in Bali during the presidential campaign. Australia, too, will never publicly press its important northern neighbour on the sensitive question of East Timorese justice.

Meanwhile, Serious Crimes Unit officials in Dili are spending time sorting and filing thousands of interviews, statements and other documents for whoever might take over the investigations.

Mission chief Hasegawa has established several working groups to ensure all parties are agreed on East Timor's direction. And one of the groups will deal specifically with justice for the serious crimes of 1999.

"They are looking at what has been accomplished to date," Koumjian explains, "what remains to be accomplished, what the international community or the UN will be thinking about post-UNMISET (the UN mission in East Timor)."

There are also plans to be made for the return by the Serious Crimes Unit of as many as 80 corpses or skeletons. About 17 have been identified and will be returned to the families, while 70 are unidentified. Koumjian says respectful burials will be arranged with the church and the government.

Although the serious crimes process in East Timor is incomplete, it is a long way ahead of the proceedings of Indonesia's ad hoc tribunal on East Timor and of the appellate courts in Jakarta, which have overturned almost all of the few tribunal convictions.

Of the verdicts for the 18 defendants, who are mostly Indonesian military and civil officials, only one conviction stands.

East Timor's former governor, East Timorese national Abilio Soares, actually spent three months in prison before his sentence was quashed. And the conviction of Eurico Guterres, a particularly bloodthirsty East Timorese militia leader, is also widely expected to be overturned. Guterres remains free while his appeal is considered.

The entire process has been called a whitewash and a sad indictment of Indonesia's judicial system. Excepting Soares's few months in prison, only one Indonesian has been officially punished for the 1999 violence: an Indonesian soldier convicted and imprisoned in East Timor.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Indonesia's attitude to the crimes of 1999 will change under the nation's new leader, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. As Indonesia's first directly elected president, Yudhoyono presents an image of moderation and talks about the importance of the rule of law. Yet the former general served as an army commander in East Timor in the 1980s and has never publicly criticised the ad hoc tribunal.

Others have been more forthcoming. Danforth told the Security Council that Indonesia's ad hoc tribunal process was "seriously flawed".

"It failed to provide a full and credible accounting for the crimes committed in East Timor in 1999," he said.

"There must be some level of accountability for those atrocities to create a climate conducive to the development of democratic institutions in both Indonesia and East Timor."

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