Katharina R. Lestari, Jakarta – Human rights activists have condemned Indonesian President Joko Widodo for presenting an award to a former East Timorese militia leader who was involved in pre-and post-independence massacres in what is now Timor-Leste.
Eurico Guterres was among 335 people to receive honorary medals from Widodo in Jakarta on Aug. 12 for their "distinguished service to Indonesia."
The awards were presented as part of celebrations to mark the country's Independence Day on Aug. 17.
"President Joko Widodo giving an honorary medal to Eurico Guterres is like pouring vinegar on the victims' wounds. Again, efforts taken to resolve gross human rights violations face suppression," the Alliance of Civil Society said in a statement.
Guterres headed a militia that terrorized residents of the East Timor capital Dili ahead of the 1999 UN-backed referendum that saw the East Timorese vote in favor of breaking away from Indonesia.
Pro-Indonesian militia groups were nurtured and backed by the Indonesian armed forces and police. They went on a killing spree following the independence vote. Some 1,400 people were killed in the violence.
In November 2002, Guterres was sentenced to 10 years in prison by an ad-hoc human rights tribunal in Jakarta for crimes against humanity.
He began his sentence in 2006 following several other legal rulings which saw an initial sentence reduction overturned by the Supreme Court. He was released in April 2008.
"The presentation of the honorary medal to Eurico Guterres is a serious betrayal of humanity and morality and rules out justice for victims. It shows that the administration of Joko Widodo... has lost its legitimacy as a government which has goodwill and free will," the human rights activists said.
"The president's move completely denies the experiences and aspirations as well as advocacy efforts taken by civil society and victims to seek justice."
According to the activists, the award could set a bad precedent.
"We would urge President Joko Widodo to revoke this honorary medal presented to Eurico Guterres. Instead, the president should ensure that his administration resolves all cases of gross human rights violations," they said.
"The government must immediately do its job and ensure the victims' right to know the truth, their right to have justice and right to receive reparations."
Speaking with UCA News, Guterres said he felt honored to receive the award.
"The purpose of a fight is not to receive an award from the government. Yet it is natural that a government presents awards to their fighters and heroes," he said.
The story would be different if East Timor was not part of Indonesia at that time. Then such criticism could be accepted
He said he could understand why some opposed him receiving the award.
"It is their right to criticize something which is unacceptable to them. But remember, East Timor was part of Indonesia at that time. So it is not fair to focus only on the background of all fighters who risked their lives to defend their nation," he said.
"The story would be different if East Timor was not part of Indonesia at that time. Then such criticism could be accepted."
Referring to his prison term, he said: "Anyone has the right to criticize in a country which upholds the law. Nevertheless, we must respect all decisions made by the law."