EAST TIMOR: Cross-Country Ties an Obstacle to Justice
By Matt Crook
DILI, Dec 2 (IPS) - East Timor’s leaders say bringing to justice perpetrators of atrocities committed during the Indonesian army’s occupation would sour relations between the neighbouring countries, but not everyone is so keen to forgive and move on.
Despite high-level stubbornness, justice can still be achieved so long as people continue to make their voices heard, observers said.
"Speaking about justice is part of achieving justice, just as speaking about independence was part of achieving independence" Dr Clinton Fernandes, an East Timor expert from the Australian Defence Force Academy, told IPS.
"Citizens—like the U.N. [United Nations]—do not have their own military or police forces but can create the political will to achieve justice simply by always speaking about it," he added.
For years, the people of East Timor and international supporters have pushed for closure on the crimes against humanity committed during the Indonesian military occupation between 1975 and 1999.
East Timor became independent in 2002, but at a cost of 180,000 lives, either killed in the violence or else left to die of starvation or sickness.
The nation’s leadership is sticking to the line that if riled, Indonesia might close the border with West Timor, lock down trade ties or reconsider the futures of the 6,000 or so Timorese students studying in Indonesia.
In August, Amnesty International released the report ‘We Cry for Justice’, in which one of the recommendations was for the U.N. Security Council to set up a comprehensive plan to end impunity.
The report has now been translated into Tetum (one of East Timor’s official languages) and Bahasa Indonesia in the hope that people in East Timor and Indonesia will be able to see that their voices are being heard.
"Every voice counts to see change on the ground, including media coverage on justice issues," said Isabelle Arradon, researcher on Indonesia and East Timor for Amnesty International.
"Continuous coverage in the lead-up to discussions on [East Timor] at the U.N. Security Council in February 2010 is welcomed to show that the international community supports the calls of the victims on the ground, and to remind U.N. Security Council members that the view of the [East Timor] government is not shared by many in the country," she added.
The firm stance of the nation’s leaders has been criticised by the U.N., which maintains that strong ties with Indonesia should not impede the need for justice.
"To ask for accountability of the individuals who did really horrible things in no way undermines that [relationship]—it only strengthens it," said Louis Gentile, representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
With the recent passing of yet another East Timor massacre anniversary, there is disillusionment on the streets of Dili.
Julio Barreto, 36, was there at Santa Cruz in Dili on Nov. 12, 1991, when Indonesian troops sprayed bullets into crowds of peaceful protesters, killing 270 of them. "We didn’t realize the troops were preparing to shoot at us," he said. "I don’t like them—the people who did this—they are well known as human rights violators, and everyone knows what they have been involved in."
Like many in East Timor, Barreto feels let down by his country’s heads of state for the lack of accountability for the Santa Cruz Massacre and other crimes against humanity.
"Instead of stressing out and thinking of those things that might never happen, I prefer to concentrate on work instead of thinking too much about bringing those people to justice, because it would take the leaders to do it, not the ordinary people like us."
The issue of justice has been a sensitive one for previous governments, but perhaps none has been scrutinised as much as Xanana Gusmao’s current ruling coalition, most notably in recent weeks when the release of an Indonesian former militia leader sparked an international media frenzy.
Maternus Bere, former commander of the pro-Indonesia Laksaur militia, was indicted by the U.N. Serious Crimes Unit for a bevy of crimes against humanity, including his part in the Suai Church Massacre in 1999, in which up to 200 innocent people were slaughtered.
Bere crossed the border from neighbouring West Timor and returned to Suai, a city in East Timor, in August to visit his family. He was arrested and ordered by the court in Suai to be detained, but directives came from Gusmao to release him into the custody of the Indonesian embassy in Dili on Aug. 30 as celebrations marking 10 years since the nation voted for independence began.
Bere spent a secretive two months at the embassy before being taken back to Indonesia on Oct. 30, making him a free man.
In 2003, the Serious Crimes Unit indicted 391 people, including Bere, for crimes against humanity committed in East Timor, and yet most of them have lived as free men in Indonesia.
The initial decision to release Bere could have toppled the government as the opposition Fretilin party and allies tabled a vote of no confidence that was debated on Oct. 12.
Gusmao defended himself, calling it a "political decision" to free Bere.
"[Indonesian foreign] minister Hassan… said that should there be no solution to the case of Martenus Bere, it could affect the relationship between the two countries," Gusmao told parliament. "He added that our refusal to cooperate in such a sensitive matter for Indonesia might force the Indonesian state to review their diplomatic policy towards [East Timor]."
Gusmao’s government survived the no-confidence vote in what observers said was a sign of political stability in the country, but the justice issue is one that refuses to simmer down.
"The struggle for justice is not a contest between Indonesians and non- Indonesians. Rather, it is a contest between those around the world who want justice to prevail and those who want to see impunity prevail," said Dr Fernandes at the memorial rites in October for Sander Thoenes, the ‘Financial Times’ correspondent murdered in East Timor 10 years ago.