Court Verdict Concerning Former Governor of East Timor is a Breach of Law

14 August 2002

Abilio Soares

Mitigating Circumstances for Abilio Soares

Photo: Jörg Meier, 1999

The first verdict of the trials concerning human rights violations perpetrated in East Timor in 1999 had been eagerly expected. But from their very start human rights organisations, amongst others Watch Indonesia!, have been doubtful whether the Indonesian judiciary would have the ability as well as the necessary will to bring the perpetrators to justice. Demands for an international tribunal, which had been recommended also by a specially established United Nations investigation commission, did not find much support. But at least international pressure had been strong enough to get Indonesia to establish a national Ad Hoc Human Rights Court and to bring charges against a number of suspects.

Already in their indictments the Attorney General’s office had made it clear that it by no means intended to question the almost 25 years of Indonesian – oppressive – rule over East Timor, which had started with the invasion of Indonesian troops in 1975. The escalating violence before and after the referendum in 1999 which, without doubt, had been planned by the Indonesian military and been carried out by militias, recruited, financed and equipped by the military, was portrayed by the Prosecution as a civil war like conflict between two enemy parties – an interpretation which the Court followed in today’s verdict.

Attorney General and Court were aware of the fact that acquittal of defendants or discontinuation of the legal proceedings would not be easily accepted by the international community. At stake here was amongst others the resumption of military ties with the United States. On the other hand Prosecution and Court felt under pressure from the military and the still powerful nationalist political forces in the country, which were neither willing to accord to the trials more than a symbolic significance nor to put high ranking officials and members of the armed forces behind bars for years. Numerous procedural deficiencies testify to this conflict of interest.

The 10 1/2 year sentence that the prosecution had demanded for the former East Timor Governor José Abilio Osorio Soares exceeded the legally stipulated minimum penalty only by six months. Thus, it can be translated as ‘accused of being guilty somehow or other’. Some sort of compromise sentence, as is occasionally agreed upon in order to allow both sides to save face, did not seem to be possible in this case, due to the stipulated minimum penalty of ten years imprisonment. Thus, the buck was passed to the Courts.

That the Court in today’s verdict nevertheless came up with a ‘compromise sentence’ is tantamount to a breach of law: According to the relevant legal provisions the defendant should have either been acquitted or been sentenced to a prison term of at least ten years. The weakness of the entire trial is clearly evident in this verdict.

In the corresponding legal opinion it was argued that a letter authored by the East Timorese President Xanana Gusmão had contributed to the mild sentence: For the sake of good neighbourly relations with East Timor’s big neighbour Indonesia, Xanana had recently asked the Court to abstain from a harsh punishment of the defendant. As an East Timorese José Abilio Osorio Soares was already sufficiently punished by the fact that he had to live in exile, the President declared. It may be recalled that Xanana himself had been sentenced by an Indonesian Court to a 20 years prison term of which he served seven years in a Jakarta jail before being released after the 1999 referendum. The Court followed Xanana’s reasoning and noted that a harsh verdict was counterproductive to the reconciliation process. However, the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is still being awaited and providing guidelines for the latter is certainly not the task of this Court. It remains to be seen which mitigating circumstances the Court will grant the non-Timorese defendants, amongst others the former East Timorese Police Chief Timbul Silaen, in its verdict which is expected for tomorrow.

José Abilio Osorio Soares was by no means just the small fry as which he portrayed himself. Active participation on the part of the Governor in the formation of the militias, members of which took their oath in the courtyard of his Governor’s palace in Dili, would quite probably have been easy to prove, had the authorities only tried to do so. Already before the 1975 invasion, Soares, then leader of the pro-Indonesian splinter party APODETI, became a talking point. Already at that time the hardliner had opted for intimidation and violence on the part of the pro-Indonesian militias (cf. annex). Neutrality on the part of Soares should also be doubted with regard to the attack on Manuel Carrascalão’s premises during which, according to the Prosecution, at least 12 people were killed, among them Carrascalão’s youngest son Manelito. His opinion on Carrascalão and the organisation under his leadership, GRPRTT (Movement for Reconciliation and Unity of the East Timorese People.), Soares had made known already in 1997, i.e. long before a referendum on the independence of East Timor had even been contemplated. At that time Soares had declared: „GRPRTT is a separatist organisation, [...] they have to be punished.“ (MateBEAN, 16/12/97).

The truth has been sacrificed for political interests here. Neither has the Court fulfilled its task of unveiling the responsibility of the perpetrators, nor has it even dared to attempt to uncover the line of command reaching back to Jakarta. – For the victims of the violence in East Timor this verdict is a slap in the face. Justice has yet to be done to them.


José Ramos-Horta on the role of José Osorio Soares and his APODETI party prior to the invasion by Indonesian troops in 1975:

“Associação Popular Democratica Timorense (APODETI) never had any popular appeal and was anything but democratic. APODETI was founded by Jose Osorio Soares. Its initial name was Associação para Integração de Timor na Indonesia (…) It brought together a „who is who“ of corrupt incompetents and marginals. (…) The intellectual force behind APODETI was José Osorio Soares, a Portuguese colonial official who had been fired over a rape charge. Moving to Dili, Osorio was given a minor administrative job and again fired after three years because of fraud. Osorio claimed to have been framed by the Portuguese authorities because of his pro-Indonesian sympathies. (…) On more than one occasion, Osorio told me, half serious, half joking: „I cannot understand you, Timor is going to be Indonesian wether you want it or not! You are killing yourself with all this bullshit for nothing.“ (…)
APODETI’s favorite tactic was intimidation. Rumors were planted that Indonesian warships were already landing troops somewhere on the island, and that anyone who opposed integration would be „disposed of“. The campaign was not only limited to rumors. APODETI began recruiting Timorese along the border with Indonesian West Timor for military training in Atambua. Sent back to East Timor, they began to burn houses, kill at random, and coerce people to move to West Timor. This was part of a calculated campaign by Jakarta.“
from: José Ramos-Horta, FUNU – the unfinished saga of East Timor, 1987, p.32,33 <>

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