Subject: Times - After 32 years, families may uncover how loved ones died in a dirty war

The Times (London)

February 3, 2007, Saturday

After 32 years, families may uncover how loved ones died in a dirty war

Lucy Bannerman and Richard Lloyd Parry

Relatives want to discover the role of diplomats in an alleged cover-up after the 1975 invasion of East Timor

In the three decades since Brian Peters died during Indonesia's secret invasion of East Timor, his sister Maureen Tolfree has been told countless versions of who killed him and how.

There was the story put out by the Indonesians in 1975: that he and four fellow journalists died accidentally, caught up in shooting between rival groups of East Timorese. There was the testimony of several witnesses: that Brian and his colleagues were murdered by Indonesian commandos. And then there was the version favoured by the British Government, and by two official Australian inquiries: that, conveniently, it was im-possible to know.

One witness said that Peters and five other men, from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, were stabbed with machetes. Another described them being mown down by machinegun fire. A third claimed that they bled to death after being hung upside down and castrated. Their remains -a few bone fragments and ashes -were hastily buried in a single coffin in Jakarta in 1975, and when Mrs Tolfree flew to the Indonesian capital to find out what had happened, a British diplomat met her at the airport and urged her to go home.

For 31 years, the stink of a cover-up has lingered around the tragedy of the Balibo Five, as they are known after the obscure village where they died. But finally the truth may be about to emerge. Next week, Mrs Tolfree, now 61, will sit in an Australian court where a coroner will conduct the first judicial inquiry into the death of Brian Peters. It is likely to be the last chance to discover who killed the five men, and it will focus further attention on the British and Australian diplomats who tacitly encouraged Indonesia's brutal invasion and did their best to avoid embarrassing its Government with questions about the killings.

Crucially, the inquiry will also hear new evidence from former radio operators at an Australian spy base, who claim that colleagues intercepted a top-secret order from the Indonesian military for the journalists "to be eliminated". Mrs Tolfree has little doubt that her brother and his companions died for the crime of witnessing and filming the clandestine invasion. "It has been such a long time," she says, "all the years that they have lied to us, all the years that they said they were killed in crossfire, and the awful things that were said about my brother and his colleagues -that they were incompetent and in the wrong place.

"That makes me angry. They were bloody good journalists. They were in the right place -that was their job. I want an apology from the Australian and British governments for lying to us."

Brian Peters, 28, a cameraman, flew to East Timor with Malcolm Rennie, a 29-year-old Scot, who also worked for the Australian Channel Nine. It was a time of tension in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony and a poor pinprick of land surrounded by the military dictatorship of Indonesia.

After a coup in Lisbon in 1974, Portugal began to divest itself of its colonies and in East Timor an independence movement sprang up. But the Indonesian dictator Suharto had other ideas.

Indonesian commandos infiltrated the country to support a handful of East Timorese who opposed independence. When they clashed with supporters of Fretilin, the pro-independence party, the Indonesians portrayed the situation as a "civil war" that threatened their interests. Peters and Rennie went to Balibo to find evidence of Indonesian interference. With them were three journalists from the rival Channel Seven: Greg Shackleton, 29, Tony Stewart, 21, and Gary Cunningham, 27.

"No one really knew what was going on, but Malcolm believed the Indonesians were getting ready for something," recalls Sue Andel, who visited Rennie, her cousin, shortly before he left. "For him, it was the biggest story since the Vietnam War."

When the five men entered Balibo they found and filmed exactly what they had suspected: Indonesian ships off the coast. They slept in an abandoned house. To distinguish themselves from the Fretilin soldiers in the village, they painted the word "Australia" and a crude Australian flag on the wall. Early on October 16, the warships began to shell the village, and Indonesian soldiers and their East Timorese supporters entered the village.

The journalists were never seen alive again.

In 1998, a Fretilin soldier named Terrado described how three of the men were dragged out of their house. "We heard them yelling, 'Australia! Australia! Not Fretilin!' They had completely surrendered to the soldiers. By the time they reached the street, I saw them being stabbed and they fell to the ground."

Other witnesses suggested that at least some of the men were shot rather than stabbed. Whatever the truth, their bodies were quickly burnt. The only institution able to press for a full explanation, the British Embassy in Jakarta, washed its hands of the affair, as demonstrated by diplomatic cables published for the first time last year in The Times.

Sir John Ford, the British Ambassador, asked Richard Woolcott, his Australian counterpart, to refrain from pressing the Indonesians for details of the deaths.

"Since no protests will produce the journalists' bodies I think we should ourselves avoid representations about them," he wrote in a cable eight days after the deaths. "They were in the war zone of their own choice."

A later cable says: "Once the Indonesians had established themselves in Dili they went on a rampage of looting and killing...If asked to comment on any stories of atrocities, I suggest we say that we have no information."

The inquiry might be about to reveal the first, conclusive proof those claims were untrue.

Dorelle Pinch, the coroner, has requested evidence from those connected to the Defence Signal Directorate station at Shoal Bay, in Darwin, between October 14 and October 20, 1975. It is alleged that officers in No 3 Telecommunications Unit, a previously unknown spying unit attached to the Royal Australian Air Force, overheard a signal disclosing an order from the Indonesia military to kill the five men.

"If that comes out," said Margaret Wilson, another of Rennie's cousins, "then it definitely puts a different light on things. If the new witnesses confirm the radio messages, then there is very strong argument to say the Australian Government, and consequently, the British Government, knew exactly what was going on."

A spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office declined to comment on the hearing. She said: "We are aware of the inquiry, and will wait to hear the coroner's conclusion before making a statement."

The reluctance of witnesses to testify and instability in East Timor have made a full-scale hearing in an international court impossible. The campaigners and relatives were told that, without a body, even inquests were impossible. The breakthrough came thanks to a quirk in the state legislation of New South Wales, where coroners can conduct an inquest even in the absence of a body. Only Peters had an address in the state, but it was enough.

One of those Mrs Tolfree would most like to see held to account is Mr Woolcott, who presided over a hastily arranged funeral in Jakarta to which the relatives were not invited. Indeed, they did not even know it had taken place until grainy photographs emerged 23 years later of Mr Woolcott and a handful of officials in dark glasses as they watched a casket lowered into the ground.

Ms Andel says: "You want to believe in justice. Malcolm did. Who took responsibility on that day? Who gave the orders? Who prevented them from getting that story out?"


* East Timor, with a population of about one million, includes the eastern half of the island of Timor, an enclave on the northwest part of the same island, and the islands of Pulau Atauro and Pulau Jaco

* It became a Portuguese colony in the 16th century, and remained so until 1975, after revolution in Lisbon gave the territory a taste for independence

* East Timor is one of the world's poorest nations. Unicef estimates that 1,200 of every 10,000 children die before their fifth birthday, compared with 60 in Australia. Life expectancy is 49 years, compared with 79 in Australia

* Indonesia, one of the biggest importers of British arms, suppressed the independence movement for more than 25 years, killing more than 100,000 people The violence culminated on November 12, 1991, with the massacre of 271 young mourners at the funeral of an independence activist at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili

* East Timor voted overwhelmingly in favour of breaking away from Jakarta in 1999, and the tiny territory emerged as a fully fledged nation in 2002

Source: Timor Sea Office; CIA Factbook

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