A long wait for justice in East Timor
Pressure to try human rights cases against the Indonesian military ebbs amid counterterror push.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Even before Sept. 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.