Hopes fade for East Timor justice

BBC News, 13 May 2002

BBC newsAs East Timor readies for independence on 20 May, Jakarta correspondent Richard Galpin writes that most of those who wreaked terrible violence after the 1999 vote to end Indonesian rule still walk free. “It is not to get justice for the victims, it’s just lip service” Human rights lawyer Johnson Panjaitan. The former Indonesian province of East Timor has been under United Nations’ control since its people voted for independence three years ago. But freedom came at a high price. More than 1,000 people were killed, and almost every town and village systematically destroyed, by retreating Indonesian soldiers and their militias. While a handful of people have been prosecuted in East Timor, most of those responsible for the violence now live in Indonesia, where there has been little progress made to bring them to justice.

Incriminating footage

Archive footage of the top militia leader, Eurico Guterres, shows him in front of a large crowd of his men in April 1999 in the East Timorese capital, Dili. The pro-Indonesian militiamen shout they are ready for operations. The crowd moves off in a convoy of vehicles led by Mr Guterres, and soon the violence begins. In a series of attacks across the city, 13 independence supporters are killed, nine people are seriously injured and many buildings destroyed. Eurico Guterres is seen with the gunmen. Earlier that month he was also filmed in the town of Liquica, just after the massacre of dozens of refugees who had taken shelter inside a church. An indictment, issued this year by a court in East Timor, accused Mr Guterres and members of the Indonesian security forces of crimes against humanity for direct involvement in the violence in Dili.


Today, Mr Guterres lives in a comfortable suburb of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. He knows he will not be extradited to East Timor to face trial. The Indonesian Government has refused to hand anyone over. And he continues to deny responsibility for the killings. “If you look fairly at what happened in East Timor, especially after the independence vote, then I’m sure I’m not to blame,” Mr Guterres said. “The responsibility should lie with the Portuguese and Indonesian governments and the United Nations, whose agreement on holding the referendum was the cause of everything that happened.” He could face trial in Jakarta at Indonesia’s own human rights tribunal, finally set up by the government in March after intense pressure from the international community. Mr Guterres and 17 other militiamen, government officials and members of the security forces, have been charged with crimes against humanity. On Monday, Mr Guterres answered questions from Indonesian state prosecutors about his role in the violence. But so far only seven of the accused have actually appeared in court and there are increasing doubts whether Mr Guterres or any other senior figures, particularly from the army, will ever be called to account. Asmara Nababan, general-secretary of the National Human Rights Commission, is sceptical.

Fatally flawed

“I’m not sure these tribunals can deliver justice. The recruitment of the judges was not transparent, the indictments are very weak and all the key witnesses are in East Timor.” Also they are only investigating very few of the violent incidents in 1999. It seems neither the judges, nor the prosecution, intend revealing the truth of what happened, although I think some middle-ranking officials will be sacrificed to save the senior military and police commanders.” The original investigation by the Human Rights Commission into the violence in East Timor called for more than 100 people, including the former armed forces chief, General Wiranto, to stand trial. But that list was cut right down by state prosecutors to remove the most senior military officers. Human rights lawyer Johnson Panjaitan is also deeply sceptical about the whole process. “From the beginning, the only purpose of these tribunals was to meet the pressure from both inside the country and from the international community. It is not to get justice for the victims, it’s just lip service. “The papers produced so far before the court are not about the systematic violations of human rights, which were well organised by the military.”

‘No proof’

And certainly lawyers such as Hotma Sitompul, who are defending those who have appeared in the tribunals, are very confident their clients will not be prosecuted. “So far there is no evidence, no witnesses, to prove that he is guilty,” he said. He said he thought his clients would be released. In the immediate aftermath of the violence in 1999, there were calls for an international human rights tribunal to be set up. But with the Indonesian Government promising to bring those responsible to justice, the United Nations backed off. Despite the lack of progress, now it seems the idea of an international court has been shelved altogether. Alex Flor, head of a German human rights organisation called Watch Indonesia, has been observing the tribunals in Jakarta.

The bigger picture

“The international community is very much interested in reinstating good relationships to Indonesia, to the Indonesian Government. “And especially the United States – who stopped their arms exports due to the East Timor case – they are very keen to reinstate good relationship with the Indonesian army in the context of… “the war against terror” after 11 September. “So they are no longer interested in putting the Indonesian army into a corner.” So whilst a few mid-ranking military police and civilian officials may eventually be prosecuted, it seems most of those responsible for the bloodshed will remain free here in Indonesia. <>

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