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A long wait for justice in East Timor

Christian Science Monitor - October 10, 2001

Simon Montlake, Jakarta – More than two years after Indonesia's bloody revenge on East Timor for a pro-independence vote, hopes of justice for thousands of victims are fading fast.

Even before September 11, international pressure on Indonesia to punish its military for their role in East Timor had ebbed. Now, with a war on global terrorism bringing potential US allies across Asia in from the cold, Indonesia's commanders may never be held accountable.

One sign of that thaw is the US government's decision last month to resume low-level military ties with Indonesia, which had been suspended over the East Timor violence.

The resumption of ties came as Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri met with President Bush to voice support for the US-led counterterror campaign. US officials have urged Indonesia to clamp down on Islamic extremist groups in the island nation.

Given the push to cement links with moderate Islamic nations, opponents in Congress may find it hard to refuse further military cooperation with the world's most populous Muslim country, despite its tarnished record. Human rights activists say that would be a setback for Indonesia's fledgling democracy as it struggles to reverse decades of unchecked military impunity.

The international focus on East Timor, which has been under UN rule since September 1999, was seen as a way of bringing Indonesia's military under civilian control and imposing the rule of law. "We need to establish institutions that create precedents," says H.S. Dillon, a member of the national human rights commission. "But once you lose the initial momentum, it's difficult."

Last week Indonesia pledged to establish by December a long-delayed human rights court on East Timor to hear cases against 23 suspects, including some Army officers, who are accused of abuses. This follows a UN Security Council decision last year to resist calls for an international war-crimes tribunal on East Timor and instead let Indonesia conduct its own trials.

In 1999, hundreds of people were killed and about 250,000 others forced to flee during a rampage by Indonesian troops and militia proxies that only ended when foreign peacekeepers intervened. The Indonesian court, whose judges will be trained by UN experts in human rights law, is to investigate acts of violence from April to September that year.

Among those is the murder of Christian Science Monitor contributor Sander Thoenes, who was allegedly killed by an Indonesian Army unit in September 1999. Witnesses say Mr. Thoenes, a Dutch national, was shot dead by Indonesian soldiers under the command of then-Maj. Jacob Sarosa, according to a Dutch police investigation. The same battalion is accused of killing several East Timorese in a rampage.

Last year, Sarosa, now a colonel, was named by an investigating team of the human rights commission as among those implicated in the violence. But, despite a slew of witness statements and material evidence gathered by foreign investigators, prosecutors in Jakarta say it will be tough to make the Thoenes case stick because of conflicting autopsy results from Indonesian and Australian authorities. Contrary to local media reports, however, they deny that the case has been dropped.

"We don't have all the witnesses," says a spokesman for the Attorney General. "But the case is still in process." Members of the Indonesian team, who submitted their report to the Attorney General to help build trial cases, say prosecutors have tried to bury this and other cases that involve ranking military officers. "We can prove that troops from Indonesia were involved in the [Thoenes] killing," says Munir, a commission member. "It's not just militia ... that were involved in the [East Timor] killings." Diplomats say strong pressure from the Dutch government, has kept the spotlight on the Thoenes case. But they warn that military interference will limit the court's general scope for punishing commanders, rather than civilian militia and low-ranking soldiers who had no command role.

Another concern is the framing of human rights legislation used to create the tribunal. It includes a clause on retroactivity that could undermine convictions, if judges accept the argument that defendants can't be tried for acts that occurred before the new laws. "It's a legal loophole," says Harold Crouch, national head of the International Crisis Group, a global think tank. "They'll find some technical reason for not finding [military defendants] guilty."

The military remains a powerful force in Indonesia, even after the fall of strongman President Suharto – a former general – and the introduction of wide-ranging democratic reforms. A block of seats in the supreme legislature is allocated to the military and police, and the defense ministry has only nominal control over security operations and budgets.

After his election in October 1999, President Abdurrahman Wahid tried to weaken the grip of senior generals by promoting reformists to top posts, only to meet with resistance from within the army. This interference was also linked to a spate of violent civil disturbances in parts of Indonesia, including the Maluku islands, which critics say were instigated by the military in a show of defiance aimed at undermining civilian rule.

By contrast, Ms. Sukarnoputri, who replaced Mr. Wahid in July with backing from the military and a cross-party coalition, is a nationalist who initially opposed giving East Timor the right to secede. She has since recognized the country's eventual independence. Indonesia occupied East Timor for 24 years.

Activists say Megawati shares the military's reluctance to expose its actions in East Timor, and knows that she has little to gain domestically from upsetting her alliance. "I think [the new government] wants to put it behind them and hopes the international community will forget about it," says Mr. Dillon.

Indeed, a mark of Ms. Megawati's ambivalence towards East Timor is the presence of militiaman Eurico Guterres in her party's youth wing. Mr. Guterres is accused of direct involvement in several massacres in East Timor in 1999 and is among those named by the human rights commission.

Diplomats insist they won't ease pressure on Indonesia to try the East Timor suspects, even though the world's gaze has shifted. But they admit that the UN is highly unlikely to insist on holding its own war-crimes tribunal, even if Indonesia fails to secure any serious convictions.

For a new democracy struggling to enforce the rule of law, even a limited tribunal would give extra leverage to reformers who want to end the military's political grip. However, much depends on the political calculations of Ms. Megawati and her advisors. "We're pushing for a credible tribunal, although we're not convinced it will succeed," says a Western diplomat." Any trial here can only be successful when you have a clear commitment from the top."