Photo: Bones of contention . . . UN forensic anthropologist Sofia Egana is working with remains at Dili’s mortuary to help build cases against killers who rampaged in East Timor. Photo: Andrew Meares
Those responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed in East Timor in 1999 are likely to escape prosecution by a special Indonesian war crimes tribunal, according to senior United Nations and Timorese human rights officials.
They said that a move by President Megawati Sukarnoputri to widen the tribunal’s scope would still exclude serious crimes committed during the Indonesian Army campaign of intimidation and revenge before and after the 1999 independence vote.
One UN official described Ms Megawati’s decree as a joke that would allow Indonesian officers to escape justice. She was initially praised when, soon after replacing Mr Abdurrahman Wahid as president, she changed the scope of a planned ad hoc court to try East Timor cases.
Early this month her office announced she was removing a constraint preventing the court from prosecuting abuses that occurred before the independence referendum on August 30, 1999.
UN officials in Dili initially welcomed the move. Now they are having second thoughts.
In a letter to the UN 12 days ago, Ms Megawati said the court would investigate and prosecute human rights violations that occurred in the districts of Liquica, Dili and Suai in April and September, 1999.
UN officials said the new decree appeared to restrict the court’s jurisdiction to crimes committed in those three districts during those two months.
“It does not include the massive deportations of hundreds of thousands of people from all across East Timor, nor the widespread burning of houses and looting,” said a UN official involved in war crimes investigations.
“It does not include many of the major killings, like the massacre of up to 80 people at Passabe, in the Oecussi enclave, nor the Maliana police station massacre, or the Los Palos killings of church workers and priests,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
“It makes a joke of the prosecution and investigation of offences when the whole world knows there was a pattern of widespread violence and destruction in East Timor in 1999.”
Mr Aniceto Guterres, director of Yayasan Hak, East Timor’s leading human rights organisation, said he had no optimism about Ms Megawati’s commitment to prosecute those responsible for human rights abuses.
“She spoke about her commitment, but I don’t believe it,” he said. “It was the military commanders who supported her rise to power. Many of those were in East Timor.”
Mr Guterres said that at a weekend rally the main parties contesting this month’s election for a constituent assembly had endorsed a statement calling for an international criminal tribunal for East Timor to be set up.
However, a UN lawyer said he feared Indonesian officers would escape justice because of the world’s reluctance to upset the Indonesian Government.
No action has been taken by Jakarta, almost two years after the worst of the 1999 violence. Eighteen months have passed since the UN Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan, resisted calls for an international court and called for Indonesia to be given a chance to bring those responsible to justice.
Lawyers and human rights officials also expressed concern that Indonesian law would prohibit prosecutions for offences against laws which were not in existence at the time the offences were committed.
A UN lawyer said: “If the international community is to accept this as satisfactory, then we are sending a clear message that the programs of violence carried out in East Timor involving the Indonesian military will never be subject to justice.
“The issue for the international community now is to ask how long do we wait before judging Indonesia’s judicial process as credible or not.”
Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission, in a widely applauded investigation of the 1999 violence, identified 11 specific cases for prosecution, none of which has gone to court.
Decisions by Indonesian courts against militia leaders implicated in violence or murder offer little grounds for optimism.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said it was deeply disturbed by the light sentences of 10 to 20 months handed down against six men after three UNHCR staff members were killed in the West Timor border town of Atambua on September 6 last year.
The Indonesian tribunal
- Liquica Church massacre, 45-60 killed, April 6,1999
- Manuel Carrascalao House, Dili, massacre, 13 killed, April 17
- Suai Church massacre, 200 killed, September 6
- Murder of Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes in Dili, September 21
- Assorted cases of sexual violence in various districts, March-September 1999
- Cailaco massacre, Bobonaro district, 22 bodies found, 13 in one grave,
- Los Palos, April and September, 13 killed, including church workers, clergy, nuns, Indonesian journalist and teenage boy. Indonesian Special
Forces officer indicted
- Intimidation and violence against United Nations staff, UN Civpol and journalists, April-September
- Sex crimes, Lolotoe, Bobonaro district, May and September
- Maliana police station massacre, 47 killed, September 8 and 9
- Mass deportation of more than 300,000 East Timorese to militia-controlled camps in West Timor, September
BD: War Crimes & Crimes Against Humanity - A collection of recent press releases, petitions, articles and news
BD: Calls for International War Crimes Tribunal - A collection of recent reports, articles and news