Covalima, East Timor - Xanana Gusmao on Tuesday visited victims of a 1999 massacre to explain the government's decision to free a militia involved in the carnage that left about 400 dead.
Gusmao visited Covalima, 170 kilometres south of Dili, to justify the state's decision to release former deputy militia leader Maternus Bere on the 10th anniversary of the Covalima September Massacre.
"The state position is, we have to give our respect to the victims by creating a culture of tolerance and living in peace," Gusmao told relatives of those who died in the brutal attack. "The decision was based on the interests of all people."
Maternus Bere, vice commander of the pro-Indonesian Laksaur militia, has been serving a prison term after being found guilty of homicide, committing sexual violence and torture in the church of Nossa Senhora de Fatima Suai-Covalima on September 6, 1999, one of the worst atrocities in East Timor's bloody struggle for independence from Indonesia.
The government last week decided to free the former militia leader.
The decision has irked victims and relatives, and is raising questions about East Timor's judicial system.
"I don't want to talk about the concrete case of a militia leader but to say that, we are all preoccupied with the legality of Timorese justice," Prosecutor General Ana Pesoa said.
The pardon has also drawn criticism from the head of the opposition Fretilin party, Aniceto Guteres.
"We condemn government policy and interference into judicial system. Tens of thousands of victims are waiting for justice and the government must not ignore victims suffering," he said.
In August 1999, 78.5 per cent of the population voted in favour of splitting from Indonesia in a referendum. Indonesia had invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975.
The occupation caused around at least 100,000 deaths among the 1.1 million East Timorese, caused by killings, diseases and starvation a UN-established truth found.
In the referendum's aftermath, Indonesian soldiers and pro-Jakarta militias killed about 1,400 people and injured and maimed many more.
United Nations peace troops, led by Australia, restored order and East Timor became formally independent in 2002. (dpa).