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Shirley Shackleton will be remembered as the fearless woman who campaigned for justice for the Balibo Five and East Timor

ABC News - January 18, 2023

Anne Barker, Jakarta – Shirley Shackleton once sat on her husband's grave and declared it a crime scene.

In the late 1980s in Dili, she personally confronted the army general who had led Indonesia's invasion of then Portuguese Timor.

Now she has been remembered as feisty, courageous and passionate, after dying at the weekend aged 91.

She was an unlikely hero.

A new mum and TV segment presenter from Melbourne, she suddenly became one of Australia's most vocal human rights advocates after her journalist husband Greg and four other Australian newsmen were brutally murdered in 1975 by Indonesian forces.

They came to be known as the Balibo Five, having gone to Timor in the weeks leading up to Indonesia's occupation, to film the military invasion for Channel 7 and 9.

But days after they arrived in Balibo, they disappeared.

One woman's hunt for answers

A sixth journalist Roger East, who later travelled to Dili to try to find the missing five and discovered their murder, was also executed by Indonesian forces a few weeks later.

Despite witness accounts to the contrary, Indonesia always maintained the men were accidentally caught in crossfire as its forces occupied the tiny territory.

The Australian government has never fully revealed how much it knew in advance of Indonesia's impending invasion.

Shirley Shackleton had no doubt her husband along with Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart from Channel Seven and Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters from Channel Nine had been murdered.

"The truth will out as they say," she once told Australian journalist and filmmaker Mark Davis.

"You can't deal with murder and lies unless you've got something to go on. You just can't. We've been lied to."

She travelled to Dili twice during Indonesia's occupation, fearless of the same forces who killed her husband.

In 1989 she "shirt-fronted" Benny Murdani, the army general who led Indonesia's invasion of Timor-Leste.

"My legs shook as I entered the dining room and when I introduced myself by name everyone stopped what they were doing," she later wrote.

"The sudden silence was overwhelming. Murdani shook his head and turned his back to me.

"I appealed to the general to tell me what happened at Balibo. He denied any knowledge of [their] fate.

"When I asked him for the simple truth I could see by the look in his eyes [that] with all his power, he could only tell weak, pathetic lies."

'Shirley became a thorn in their side'

For decades Shirley Shackleton campaigned tirelessly to expose her husband's killers and bring them to justice, at the same time becoming a fierce advocate for Timorese independence.

She called for a full Australian inquiry into the Balibo deaths, writing to former foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans and lobbying the government in Canberra until it did so.

However the Sherman inquiry in the late 1990s effectively backed Indonesia's claims that the men died in crossfire.

It took another decade before a NSW coroner ruled that the Balibo Five had been deliberately stabbed or shot by Indonesian special forces, led by Captain Yunus Yosfiah, who later became Indonesia's minister for communications.

Mark Davis travelled with Shirley Shackleton when she first visited the house at Balibo where her husband Greg was killed.

"What she did ... was expose the truth of it. It seems normal enough to us now. We say, 'Oh, the murder of the Balibo Five.' Well, we only say that because she suffered for 20 years trying to prove it."

Despite the coronial findings, successive Australian governments have never released Canberra's full intelligence records about the Balibo killings.

"Every government from 1975 onwards, Shirley became a thorn in their side, calling for an honest investigation of the killing of the Balibo Five," Davis says.

"She never, never let up, never let up. I mean the resilience of that woman and the emotional toll upon her was extraordinary.

"And it was really that consistency that marked out Shirley Shackleton."

A decades-long search for justice

In 2010, Shirley Shackleton confronted Indonesian authorities again when she gave evidence in a Jakarta court to try to overturn Indonesia's ban on the Australian-made film Balibo – released the year before – which dealt with the men's death.

She also visited her husband's grave in Jakarta, where the Indonesians claim the remains of the Balibo Five lie in a single grave at a local cemetery.

She wrote to then Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, demanding the government have the remains exhumed and returned to Australia.

She claimed the remains of her husband and his colleagues had been moved from the original grave in Jakarta's Kebayoran Lama Cemetery in 1979 and re-interred at the edge of the cemetery down by the railway line.

"The new site is a crime scene. Are you treating it as a crime scene?" she wrote.

"Was permission sought from any Australian authority to move the grave? If so, who gave permission?

"Why have no forensic tests been applied to determine if the so-called remains are those of my husband and his colleagues or are in fact human at all?"

Not even age dimmed Shirley Shackleton's fire or quest for justice.

In 2019, at the age of 87, she travelled again to Dili to deliver a petition of 4,000 Timorese demanding the release of lawyer Bernard Collaery and "Witness K", who were facing longstanding charges for raising concerns over Australia's secret operation in 2004 to spy on Timor Leste's cabinet.

As she sought to confront Australia's then prime minister Scott Morrison, Timorese officials tried to physically move her on.

"Don't bully me," she told them.

"I'm here to see the prime minister."

She later handed the petition to then foreign minister Marise Payne, who was travelling with the PM for the anniversary of Timor's independence.

After news of her death came at the weekend, Timor Leste's President Jose Ramos Horta posted: "Good bye Shirley."

"Thank you forever. Forever we will remember you," he wrote.

"Your soul rests with us in Mt Ramelau."

Lawyer Bernard Collaery, who had known Shackleton for decades, said she was an Australian hero.

"Shirley was for many years part of the very slender conscience of Australia," he said.

"It was a period when Australia was in self-denial about our relationship with Indonesia and the region itself.

"We were in denial, we were in fear of the region, and Shirley was a very strong thread in the Australian conscience."

He said she epitomised the values of "resoluteness, generosity and care for others".

Shirley Shackleton is survived by her son Evan and two grandchildren and her funeral will be held in Melbourne on Monday.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-01-17/balibo-five-widow-shirley-shackleton-dies/10186394