How an alleged war criminal in East Timor escaped justice
November 5, 2009 - 8:52AM
Maternus Bere, a Timorese-born Indonesian citizen accused of crimes against humanity, was ushered secretly across the border from East Timor into Indonesia last weekend, ending weeks of behind-the-scenes intrigue in Dili.
The story of how Indonesia came to threaten diplomatic ties with its tiny half-island neighbour to save Bere is not known outside the circle of East Timor's political elite.
It began 10 years ago, in Father Hilario Madeira's church in the East Timorese town of Suai.
I was fortunate to meet Father Hilario back then, when I was covering the United Nations vote that led to East Timor's independence.
Father Hilario had invited people who feared for their lives amid a wave of pro-Indonesian militia violence to take shelter in his church, where it was thought the sanctity of a place of worship would protect them.
But scores of pro-Indonesian militia stormed the church on September 6 1999, rushing first towards Father Hilario's private quarters, hacking, stabbing and shooting many people in their path.
One witness told how a grenade was thrown into Father Hilario's room, after which the room was racked by automatic gunfire.
Father Hilario and two other priests were among the first of more than 200 people to die in the worst of many massacres in East Timor in the days immediately after Timorese voted to breakaway from Indonesia.
Maternus Bere led that militia attack, according to charges laid against him by the UN's Serious Crimes Unit in 2003.
For a decade he lived in Indonesian West Timor, out of the reach of East Timor's judicial system, where he became a provincial government administrator.
But in August this year he crossed the border and returned to Suai to attend his father's funeral, even venturing back into Father Hilario's former church to pray.
Not surprisingly, he was recognised and set-upon by angry locals.
Police intervened to save him and sent him to a jail in Dili to face the UN charges.
Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's prime minister, revealed how Bere came to be set free during a vote of no-confidence against his government in parliament.
In the days before the 10th anniversary of the vote for independence, the Indonesian Government privately pressured East Timor's President Jose Ramos Horta to release Bere, who had been the commander of one of the most brutal militia in East Timor in 1999.
The issue came to a head as dignitaries, including Australia's Governor-General Quentin Bryce, were gathering for the anniversary ceremony on the steps of East Timor's new presidential palace on Dili's waterfront on August 30.
East Timor's Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa was at Dili airport to greet Indonesia's Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda, who had flown in for the ceremony.
But da Costa telephoned Gusmao to tell him that Wirayuda would only attend the ceremony if there was a resolution to the Bere case.
In parliament, Gusmao quoted Wirayuda as saying that “our refusal to co-operate in such a sensitive matter for Indonesia might force the Indonesian state to review their diplomatic policy towards Timor-Leste (East Timor).”
Gusmao called a hasty meeting in the palace's waiting room.
A senior judge told him he could not release Bere under East Timor's laws.
When Gusmao, a former guerrilla fighter, insisted that a way be found to resolve the stand-off, the judge told him “prime minister, the time of the guerrilla (war) is over.”
Eventually, the judge suggested a compromise: Gusmao could transfer a prisoner from one place to another.
“Being thankful for the idea and knowing that otherwise we could not move on with this case, I ordered the Minister for Justice to have Maternus Bere transferred from Becora prison to the Indonesian Embassy,” Gusmao told parliament.
But Gusmao was still not confident his order would be carried out, such was the opposition to the move at the highest levels of government.
He told the minister: “If you do not do it, I will go there and get him (Bere) myself.”
Wirayuda arrived at the ceremony 45 minutes after it had begun, apparently satisfied that Bere was then safely inside the Indonesian Embassy.
Wirayuda was just in time to hear Ramos Horta declare that Timorese must "bury the past" and not pursue the killers of hundreds of Timorese, most of whom live in Indonesia.
There would be no international tribunal to prosecute those accused of crimes in East Timor, Mr Ramos Horta declared on that sweltering hot morning.
When news of Bere's release leaked the next day, UN officials in Dili, Western diplomats, politicians and non-government organisations expressed outrage.
The Catholic church also condemned Bere's release, with influential bishop, Basilio do Nascimento, declaring: “We have to forgive but before we forgive there must be justice.”
I often think of Father Hilario - a wonderful and kind man - and the barbarity that engulfed his place of worship.
Lindsay Murdoch is a senior writer based in Darwin for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. He frequently travels overseas on assignment.