After years of glacial progress, Indonesia has revived a stalled judicial probe into the murder of Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes, who was shot dead in East Timor in September 1999, allegedly by a vengeful Indonesian Army unit.
State prosecutors said yesterday that they will send a team to East Timor in the next two weeks to gather more evidence and talk to potential witnesses to the murder.
The move is in response to international pressure on Indonesia to solve the murder of Mr. Thoenes - who wrote for the Financial Times and this newspaper - and uncover other atrocities committed in East Timor in the months during a controversial August 1999 referendum
"I can't imagine the Army wants to see its people on trial..., and the president is reluctant to draw the ire of the Army," says Juwono Sudarsono, Indonesia's former defense minister.
Dutch diplomats have pressed Jakarta for more than two years to investigate the death of Thoenes. Indonesia's apparent reluctance to bring the killers to justice has also strained relations between Jakarta and donor countries in the European Union, say European diplomats.
Another key factor is the need to restore military ties with the US after Congress banned military aid and training for Indonesian troops to reprimand the Army for its role in the East Timor bloodshed. US officials say prosecutions of Thoenes's case and of other such atrocities could persuade Congress to lift the ban.
Some US military officials worry that this ban is now hampering the hunt for terrorist networks in Indonesia. Speaking to reporters in Singapore on Jan. 29, Adm. Dennis Blair, chief of the US Pacific Command, said Indonesia lacked resources to fight terrorism and needed US help. "There are modest things that we can do now, but certainly we could be much more effective if we had a fuller relationship, which we do hope would be available as the Indonesian armed forces make progress," he said.
Indonesia has promised to conduct its own hearings into the bloodshed, rather than submit to an international human rights tribunal. So far, prosecutors have named 19 people, including three Army officers, as suspects in the East Timor violence.
Diplomats say the tacit admittance of possible Army involvement in the killing of Thoenes is a "breakthrough." "It's something we can build on," says a Western official who knows the case.
However, pinpointing the Army's role in the bloodshed will be difficult.
Army generals insist that the violence in East Timor was spontaneous and involved only 'rogue soldiers' and civilian militiamen. By contrast, UN officials who organized the 1999 referendum say Indonesia planned and executed a campaign of intimidation to undermine the vote and keep control of its province.
The court is restricted in its jurisdiction to cover only abuses that took place in three East Timor districts in April and September 1999, even though violence was widespread in the run-up to the ballot. Critics say this excludes several notorious massacres in which the Army allegedly played a role.
That makes the evidence found in a Dutch investigation a powerful tool for the prosecution. It points the finger at Indonesian troops acting on orders to "kill and destroy." Given the court's limited reach, the Thoenes case may be the best hope of bringing Army commanders to justice, say diplomats. "It's the only [case] that falls within the jurisdiction of the court that directly implicates the military," says the Western diplomat.
Until now, Indonesia has refused to use the report's findings and reportedly tried to drop the case for lack of evidence. H.S. Dillon, who was part of an Indonesian human rights commission team that investigated the murder in 1999, says this backpedaling reflects a desire to avoid confronting the country's powerful Army. "The prosecutors were never eager to prosecute any [accused] Army officers," he says. "They have nothing to gain and everything to lose."
Observers say the Army is using its political muscle to keep ranking officers off the conviction sheet. Another worry is that President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who took office last July with military backing, has so far shown little enthusiasm for punishing human-rights abuses committed by Indonesian soldiers. The Dutch report concluded that members of Indonesia's Battalion 745 - an Army unit that has since been disbanded - killed Thoenes Sept. 21 on a road outside Dili. A subsequent Monitor investigation revealed that a Battalion officer, only hours after Thoenes's death, told the soldiers to keep quiet about that and other incidents. "Don't even tell your wives," he said.