Indonesian court puts military impunity on trial

Three of the defendants are the most senior military officials ever to face a civilian court.

Munir had dreamed of this day for years, and as head of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), he had helped to bring it about: the nation's first trial of senior leaders for crimes against humanity, committed in East Timor in 1999.

But as a special court opened yesterday to try 18 suspects, including three military officers, accused of four atrocities in East Timor, Munir was conspicuously absent from the jam-packed gallery. Instead, he was sifting through the wreckage of his office, one day after it was ransacked by a mob of 300 military supporters.

"This attack was about our ongoing efforts to bring senior officers in the military to justice,'' said Munir yesterday, sitting on a bench outside his office. "The irony of this happening the day before the East Timor trial isn't lost on me."

Convictions in the trial could pave the way for the US to resume military ties with Indonesia – something that would strengthen President Megawati's government, and turn the world's largest Muslim country from a reluctant ally to a wholehearted supporter of the US war on terrorism. Observers say this trial could also mark the end of a tradition of impunity for the Indonesian military.

Defendants at the hearing yesterday included former East Timor Gov. Abilio Soares and a former East Timor police chief, Brig. Gen. Timbul Silaen. They are charged with knowingly permitting their subordinates to participate in "wide and systematic attacks" against civilians, including a massacre of 26 refugees at a church in September 1999. Mr. Silaen says the accusations are false.

Other defendants include Maj. Gen. Adam Damiri, the senior commander overseeing East Timor at the time, Brig. Gen. Tono Suratman, the former East Timor military commander, and Col. Noer Muis, also a former East Timor military commander. They are the most-senior Indonesian officers ever to face a civilian court for human-rights crimes.

Armed Forces spokesman Maj. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin told reporters that the military is giving its "full moral support" to the accused.

The US Congress banned military assistance and training for the Indonesian military in the wake of the East Timor violence, which left more than 100 dead and displaced 250,000 people after the former province chose independence in a UN-sponsored poll. But some diplomats and Indonesian human rights activists warn the US against resuming military ties.

"Using the outcome of this tribunal as a parameter for resuming relations with the Indonesian military would be an enormous mistake,'' says Hendardi, chairman of the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association. "Until they've gotten out of politics and shown they've changed their methods, you can only create more victims by resumed contact."

Critics point out early warning signs in the legal process. None of the 18 defendants are being held in jail, few if any of the judges have a background in human-rights law, and no witnesses have been summoned from East Timor, where the alleged crimes were committed.

"They're charging these men with knowing that violent crimes were to be committed, but the prosecutors don't seem to know who committed the violence themselves," says Mohammad Asrun, a lawyer and spokesman for Judicial Watch, a watchdog group. "The defense should be in a great position when it starts arguing."

Mr. Asrun and others say that by choosing to prosecute just four instances of violence, it does not appear prosecutors will attempt to prove a pattern of premeditated violence by the military as an institution.

The murder of former Monitor contributor Sander Thoenes – who, UN investigators say, was killed by members of Indonesian Army Battalion 745 – is not among the incidents being prosecuted.

One of the people who will not appear before the court is General Wiranto, who headed the armed forces at the time of the violence in East Timor. His absence is among the biggest complaints for rights activists, since they say he bore ultimate responsibility for what happened in East Timor and elsewhere.

Calls to the office of one of Wiranto's lawyers were not answered.

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