East Timor's avenues to justice blocked

A Western journalist killed in September 1999 is just one unresolved case.

Shortly after Monitor contributor Sander Thoenes was killed in East Timor last year, it seemed as if justice would be served in his case. But that looks increasingly in doubt.

Initial reports suggested that those responsible for the killing were members of the Indonesian Army's Battalion 745, a unit based in East Timor. On Sept. 21, 1999, the day Thoenes was shot to death, many of the battalion's soldiers rode in a convoy toward Dili, East Timor's capital, where witnesses say the soldiers encountered the Dutch journalist.

Indonesia was withdrawing its military because East Timorese voters, in a referendum organized by the UN on Aug. 30, had voted overwhelmingly for independence after nearly a quarter century of Indonesian occupation.

A Monitor investigation published early this year linked the battalion to 13 murders or disappearances on that day alone, including Thoenes's. An investigation by an Australian coroner and an inquiry jointly conducted by a Dutch detective and an Australian military policeman, both reached the preliminary conclusion that Battalion 745 soldiers were responsible for the killing.

But the battalion's commander, Lt. Col. Jacob Sarosa, has insisted to Indonesian officials and other interlocutors that his unit was not involved in Thoenes's death, and his word has carried the day.

So 15 months on, the chances that Thoenes's killers will be brought to justice are sinking fast under the weight of international indifference and Indonesia's increasingly nationalistic political climate. "As far as I am aware," says Peter Thoenes, Sander's brother, "there has been no activity on the Indonesian side on Sander's case at all in the year 2000."

Peter Thoenes says he still has some faith in Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman because "he seems sincere." But Mr. Marzuki says his investigation has "stalled because of a lack of leads."

Though Marzuki designated the Thoenes murder as one of his five priority East Timor cases at the beginning of the year, he has not yet named any suspects. "This is proving much more difficult than we expected," he says.

Marzuki is fighting a battle to hold credible prosecutions in the face of opposition from military hardliners and populist politicians such as Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

"Anything that can keep the pressure on will be well taken ... so that our investigation doesn't fizzle as a result of lack of concern," he says. Marzuki hopes to prosecute 22 suspects in connection with four other cases of human rights abuses in East Timor by the end of February, though he's worried that Indonesia's parliament could simply veto the whole process.

A country's struggles

But as Thoenes's friends and family worry that the small solace justice could provide will not be theirs, Indonesia is bearing a heavier cost. Thoenes's murder occurred in the context of the country's struggles with a military accustomed to an atmosphere of impunity.

Indonesia's military and police have routinely used torture and summary executions, and human rights investigators say tens of thousands have been murdered in recent decades.

UN and Indonesian investigators say Battalion 745's behavior fit a pattern of rights abuses by Indonesian troops intended to punish East Timor for its choice of independence in the 1999 referendum. More than 1,000 people were killed and 250,000 driven from their homes before an Australian-led multinational force arrived on Sept. 20 and the last Indonesian soldier left shortly thereafter.

Mohammed Othman, the chief prosecutor for the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET), which is now administering the territory, is leading a separate effort to achieve some sort of accountability. Earlier this month, he indicted 10 men from a militia called Team Alpha on charges related to the massacre of nuns, priests, aid workers, and an Indonesian journalist on Sept. 25 last year.

Team Alpha was created and trained by the Indonesian Special Forces, known by its Indonesian acronym, Kopassus, and worked closely with Battalion 745 at its headquarters in Los Palos, East Timor. Kopassus officers dominated Indonesian military policy in East Timor, and were often the controlling figures in battalions deployed in the territory.

Nine of the 10 suspects - all East Timorese - are in custody, and Mr. Othman says he hopes to convince some of them to testify against the Indonesian military in exchange for lighter sentences.

"We aren't just focusing on this matter as a separate event but are trying to link it up with the whole conduct of 745 on their route from Los Palos to Dili," Othman says. "We don't have enough evidence yet to pinpoint individuals, but we can say that the conduct of that battalion was criminal."

Othman, a Tanzanian who was formerly chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, says he doesn't have enough evidence to charge anyone with Thoenes's death. But he adds the Battalion 745 convoy arrived at Dili headquarters 20 minutes after Thoenes's death, and that its route was through the area where the reporter died.

"It's quite clear that nobody else could have killed Thoenes. The area was deserted then, other than the military, and the military had full control there," Othman says.

Pressure against trial

Of course, even if Othman builds a case, it's not likely he alone will be able to bring the guilty to justice. Most soldiers who served in East Timor are currently in Indonesia, and the military's lawyers have made it clear they will fight extradition efforts as a matter of national sovereignty.

"We want trials, but the trials must be held in Indonesia," says Adnan Buyung Nasution, chairman of the military's legal team, which calls itself the Human Rights Advocacy Team for Indonesian military and police. "This is a very basic matter of principle: It is a matter of national interest to protect our citizens."

Injustice to the nation

Indonesians, by and large, have been indifferent to the crimes in East Timor, seeing them as a footnote to an injustice they themselves have suffered. Many Indonesians see the loss of their onetime province as a humiliation engineered by foreign powers, and say the violence there was the result of a civil war.

Asmara Nababan, chairman of the Indonesian Commission on Human Rights, says he is "growing pessimistic" that a fair trial will ever be held. "The parliament doesn't understand why it's important for Indonesia to punish human rights violators."

A third avenue for justice - a UN human rights tribunal - seems to be growing ever more unlikely.

Indonesian officials say they expect that China and Russia will stop any move in the UN Security Council to create such a tribunal. Both countries have been accused of abusing human rights in rebellious provinces of their own - Tibet and Xinjiang, in China's case, and Chechnya, in Russia's - and would thus have reason to stop any international inquiry into Indonesia's actions in East Timor.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan signaled as much when he ignored a recommendation from Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, early this year calling for a tribunal. It was the first time such a recommendation has ever been rebuked.

Instead, Mr. Annan said the UN preferred that Indonesia carry out its own trials first, and that a tribunal could still be created if the UN isn't satisfied with the results.

But Nasution, the military's chief lawyer, says that would make a mockery of the Indonesian justice system. "If my clients are tried and acquitted here, they can't try them again somewhere else. That's double jeopardy."

Monitor staff writer Cameron W. Barr contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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