Members of an Indonesian military unit known as Battalion 745 are the leading suspects in the execution-style murder of Monitor contributor Sander Thoenes, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
Mr. Thoenes was put to death on Sept. 21 with a single shot after he was dragged away from a main road leading out of the East Timor capital of Dili, say two well-placed sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"The investigation is being pursued with vigor and thoroughness as far as circumstances allow," adds Cmdr. Alan Castle, an Australian police officer with the UN mission in East Timor and coordinator of the investigation. "I believe there are few avenues of inquiry left in East Timor. And there are other links with a TNI unit which should be pursued," he says, using the acronym for the Indonesian military.
That unit is Battalion 745, sources say. The Indonesian military has made some officers available to international investigators for questioning, but they deny its soldiers were responsible for the murder.
The investigators include civilian police at the UN mission, military police attached to the international force now restoring order in East Timor, and Dutch police officers who are working on the case because Thoenes was a citizen of the Netherlands.
The investigators are wrapping up the initial inquiry and will soon prepare a report on the matter for the United Nations. But because suspicion has been cast on Battalion 745, says one diplomat familiar with the case, "the cooperation of Indonesia in the next phase is even more important than in the current one."
Whether justice is served in this case now depends on the willingness of the Indonesian government and its military to proceed, says the diplomat. So far, however, Indonesian officials and officers have done little more than respond - sometimes belatedly - to requests from Dutch and UN investigators and from the commander of the international force in East Timor.
"We are disappointed by the apparent lack of action on the Indonesian side," says Peter Thoenes, Sander's brother and spokesman for his family. "This is all the more surprising in view of the strong indications that Sander was brutally murdered by regular troops from the Indonesian Army."
But senior Indonesian officials appear unwilling to countenance accusations against the military, a respected institution in the country. It remains unclear whether Indonesia's newly elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, will choose to pursue the Thoenes case, since doing so might complicate relations with the military.
"The [members of the] Indonesian military may not be the brightest people in the world, but they are very careful about not killing journalists," says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, foreign policy adviser to Indonesia's former president, B.J. Habibie. "I don't believe Indonesian soldiers would be interested in killing journalists, especially at the end of their tour of duty."
Thoenes's death took place in the midst of a violent transition in East Timor. On Aug. 30, voters in the territory overwhelmingly opted to break away from Indonesia, igniting angry reprisals from militia groups and Indonesian soldiers opposed to independence.
As a group of nations led by Australia prepared to send troops into the territory to restore peace, Indonesian soldiers and pro-Indonesia militia members evicted large numbers of East Timorese from their homes and destroyed houses and other property. The soldiers and militia members also began to leave the soon-to-be-independent territory - crossing the border that divides Timor island into East and West. West Timor is part of the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara.
On Sept. 20, the international force began arriving in Dili, followed a day later by two planeloads of journalists flying in from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Thoenes went to Dili on assignment for his main employer, The Financial Times of London. After depositing his bags at a hotel, Thoenes hired a motorcycle taxi and headed to an eastern suburb of the city to survey the destruction and do some reporting.
Thoenes was known as a careful reporter in such circumstances. Several days before his death, he and other journalists had decided against organizing an earlier flight to Dili because of security concerns.
As the reporter and his driver proceeded east, says a self-proclaimed eyewitness interviewed by the Monitor, they encountered a group of soldiers belonging to Battalion 745 who were moving in the opposite direction. Riding in trucks and motorcycles, the soldiers were accompanied by militia members displaying Indonesian flags.
At the time, Battalion 745 had vacated its base in Los Palos, a town at the eastern tip of East Timor and its soldiers were traveling toward West Timor. There is evidence indicating that the 745 may have been involved in several incidents as it moved across the island.
Shortly before Thoenes was killed, a British reporter and an American photographer traveling on the same road also ran into Battalion 745 soldiers, who terrorized them, beat their driver, and abducted their translator.
Thoenes and his driver apparently attempted to flee the oncoming troops, and the driver has said that the soldiers fired shots in their direction and pursued them on motorcycles. The driver says he lost control of his own motorcycle and ran away, adding that he last saw Thoenes lying motionless on the road.
Alexandre Estevao, a farmer in the region, says he saw soldiers in Battalion 745 uniforms dragging Thoenes off the road and into the secluded area where his body was later found.
Some time later, investigators believe he was killed with a single shot through the chest.
"There's no doubt about that at all," says one source, referring to the execution-style circumstances of the murder.
Thoenes's head and face were deliberately mutilated. It is hard to know what to make of the mutilation or to conclude exactly when it took place in relation to the time of Thoenes's death.
"I believe [the killers] wanted to send a message," says the source, but like others familiar with the details of the killing, he cannot specify what the message was supposed to convey or to whom it was directed.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society