Hopes dim for international tribunal in Thoenes case

Indonesia is trying 18 defendants for 'crimes against humanity' in East Timor.

Indonesia's commitment to justice is being questioned after Jakarta's decision to shelve an investigation into a Dutch journalist's murder.

The inquiry into the death of reporter Sander Thoenes, killed during a 1999 military rampage in East Timor, was widely seen as a major test of the Indonesian judiciary's credibility.

"It becomes clearer and clearer that Indonesia can't and won't do the job," said John Miller, of the New York-based East Timor Action Network, after Jakarta's announcement earlier this month that it was dropping the case for lack of evidence.

As the East Timor Action Network, other human-rights activists, as well as the reporter's family renew their call for a UN-sanctioned war-crimes tribunal, the international community's tough talk has melted into a wait-and-see attitude.

The geopolitical reality today suggests that such a tribunal is unlikely.

"If it didn't happen in 1999, when what was happening in East Timor was the focus of the international community and there was a sense of outrage, then there's much less likelihood it would happen now," says one European diplomat at the United Nations.

Indonesia's treatment of East Timor has slid to the back burner of international attention over the past year, supplanted by the crises of global terrorism, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Kashmir.

Politics also explains why pressure has eased on Indonesia, observers say. The UN itself is wary of disrupting efforts by now independent East Timor to normalize relations with Indonesia. The Chinese, who wield a veto on the UN Security Council, rigidly oppose international tribunals – lest their actions in, say, Tibet or Tiananmen Square be exposed to prosecution. And the White House and Pentagon are pressing to reestablish military relations with Indonesia – the world's most populous Muslim nation – and bring it on board as an ally in the US "war on terror."

All this presents major obstacles to creating an international war-crimes tribunal for the Thoenes case or other cases.

"Until they have exhausted their processes and it's clear they haven't produced results, our inclination is to leave it with the Indonesians and to urge them to do the right thing," says John Dauth, Australia's ambassador to the UN. "So, while we're not going the international tribunal route at the moment, we're not ruling it out for the future."

Indonesia had promised to ferret out anyone within its own ranks who had perpetrated the mayhem that engulfed East Timor in September 1999. Eighteen lower-ranking soldiers, civilian administrators, and militia members are now charged with "crimes against humanity" and assorted human-rights abuses.

Convictions are expected to be handed down next month, though few observers expect them to be much more than slaps on the wrist.

But the investigation into who killed Thoenes – a Financial Times correspondent and Monitor contributor – was considered by UN and Dutch investigators as the best-documented case of military-orchestrated violence.

Thoenes arrived in East Timor on Sept. 21, 1999, just ahead of Australian peacekeepers and reportedly fell off a motorcycle while being chased. A member of the Indonesian Army Battalion 745 allegedly then shot the reporter in the back, killing him.

An international tribunal is needed in the case, says Peter Thoenes, brother of Sander and the spokesman for the Thoenes family, "to put pressure on Indonesia, and to make clear that in Indonesia there is not even the ghost of a judicial system."

The Dutch government itself, which conducted its own investigation and shared the results with the Indonesian authorities, was also frustrated with Indonesia's decision.

A spokesman for the Dutch mission to the UN, however, says the country would not be lobbying for an international tribunal.

"We regret the Indonesian decision, and we have always pushed for each and every person guilty of war crimes to be brought to justice," says spokesman Peter Mollema. "But even with an international tribunal, you would only be able to bring the soldiers to justice with the cooperation of the Indonesian government."

As for the UN, it plans to send an observer to the trials in an effort to step up pressure on Jakarta.

But for the most part, the international community is withholding judgment until whatever convictions are announced next month.

"Let's not forget that these trials are a positive development; at least there are now trials dealing with human rights," says US Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

"But the focus must be on the result of these trials. It's not only a question of convictions, but of credible punishment for those convicted. The world is watching – a year in jail for war crimes is not enough, and house arrest is not sufficient. We must continue to hold the specter of an international tribunal out there to ensure maximum justice and to serve as a fail-safe in the event the trials do not produce justice."

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