Subject: IHT: East Timor laying past to rest

International Herald Tribune

East Timor laying past to rest

By Seth Mydans


DILI, East Timor After ducking and dodging for more than five years, it appears that the Indonesian officers responsible for the devastation of East Timor in 1999 have reached safe ground and will avoid prosecution under a new agreement signed by the leaders of both countries.

In March, the two nations agreed to form a Commission of Truth and Friendship that would, in the words of East Timor's foreign minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, "resolve once and for all the events of 1999" and "finally close this chapter."

But from the start, the agreement has been the source of new controversy over the immunity it provides from prosecution for atrocities. In parallel, the United Nations has formed a Commission of Experts that will review the judicial processes in both nations.

After 24 years of occupation in this former Portuguese colony, Indonesia was forced by a binding United Nations-sponsored referendum in September 1999 to pull out its troops. As they retreated, they orchestrated a campaign of destruction in which much of East Timor was razed. An estimated 1,400 people were killed during 1999 and another 250,000 were forced into exile after the vote.

The Truth and Friendship commission, made up of five members from each nation, takes a step backward from attempts around the world in recent years to find ways to call the perpetrators of mass atrocities to account.

The commission will have the power to recommend amnesty for those involved, but its findings explicitly "will not lead to prosecution," according to its charge. It will "emphasize institutional responsibilities" rather than identifying and assigning blame to individual perpetrators. It will have the power to recommend rehabilitation for those "wrongly accused," but no power to propose rehabilitation or reparations for victims.

Ramos-Horta said in an interview that East Timor was bending over backward to accommodate Indonesia because of the futility of pursuing culprits outside its jurisdiction and because of the priority his tiny nation must place on good relations with its powerful neighbor.

Critics say the two nations are putting their current national interests ahead of universal principles of justice.

"Crimes committed against humanity are a matter of concern for the entire international community," the Judicial System Monitoring Program, an independent East Timorese legal organization, said in a statement. "They cannot be ignored or disposed of as a matter of bilateral political concern."

Prosecutions for crimes against humanity have spread since the early 1990s, when international criminal tribunals were set up for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. An International Criminal Court opened in 2002 to operate as a permanent and independent court for judging war crimes.

A different model of mixed international tribunals, including both national and foreign judges, is being pursued in Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Kosovo, as well as East Timor. Each of these, like the new Truth and Friendship Commission, could be used as a precedent, and each sends a signal to both perpetrators and victims in the future.

The creation of the Truth and Friendship Commission does not rule out a future international tribunal. But current politics makes such a tribunal extremely unlikely in the near term, a senior UN official in East Timor said on condition of anonymity.

The United Nations has an unusual stake in the case of East Timor: It was a target in the violence surrounding the referendum. Thirteen United Nations workers were killed, its property was vandalized, and its compound was surrounded and workers harassed.

The UN Commission of Experts, announced in February, will review the failure in both countries to fulfill a UN resolution demanding that "all those responsible for such violence be brought to justice." More than five years later, no Indonesian perpetrator has been punished.

The agreement on the Truth and Friendship Commission is seen by many analysts as an attempt by both countries to pre-empt the work of the UN commission. Indonesia has shown reluctance to cooperate with the UN group and at first denied visas to its members.

In Indonesia, a special tribunal was created in a deal to avoid international prosecutions by the United Nations. All 16 Indonesian defendants went free in politicized trials. A number have been promoted to senior posts in the military. Just one conviction was upheld, that of an East Timorese militia leader.

In East Timor, an ad hoc court set up with the help of the United Nations has indicted nearly 400 people, of whom more than 300 are in Indonesia, including senior military and police officers. The authorities there have refused to extradite any of these to face trial in East Timor. The result is that the only people who have been jailed for the violence are relatively low-level members of East Timorese militias that were created and managed by the Indonesian military.

Ramos-Horta said in the interview that the refusal of Indonesia to extradite defendants illustrates the futility of attempting prosecutions. He said the hope was that, under a shield of immunity, perpetrators would cooperate with the Truth and Friendship inquiry, "telling the truth, acknowledging responsibility and apologizing to the victims."

He pointed out that unlike other countries that have pursued prosecutions, East Timor is dealing with defendants who are beyond reach in another country.

"Are we going to be playing the role of Don Quixote and run against the winds of justice, or play the role of Lilliputian judges to chase every villain in the world?" he said. "I know our policy is not very popular in this country, but leaders are not expected to follow. We are expected to lead in the best way for the country."

He said this meant cultivating friendly relations with Indonesia, where a still-fragile democracy could be threatened if high ranking military officers are extradited to East Timor.

In addition, he said, in managing the emergence of a new nation in East Timor in the years since Indonesia left, the United Nations failed to establish a strong judicial system capable of handling serious crimes.

While acknowledging these factors, critics in East Timor suggest that there might have been other ways to search for the truth, short of offering explicit immunity.

An independent Indonesian investigation concluded that the violence had been orchestrated by the civilian and military apparatus both in East Timor and at the highest military command levels in Indonesia.

A separate East Timorese investigation is to issue a report soon that is expected to add significantly to the historical record. The investigation, called the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, has spent months interviewing East Timorese victims and perpetrators.

It has produced an East Timorese version of truth and reconciliation in which about 1,500 militia members have confessed in front of their neighbors and agreed to apologize, make restitution and perform community service.

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