Subject: SMH: Accused of terror, militiaman gives himself up to justice on home turf

Sydney Morning Herald July 5, 2001

Accused of terror, militiaman gives himself up to justice on home turf

There was only one alternative to life in the camps for Victor Lopes, writes Mark Dodd, Herald Correspondent in Saburai village, East Timor.

After leaving the squalor of a refugee camp in West Timor, one of militia leader Victor Lopes's first acts on returning to his mountain village was to register for East Timor's August 30 elections.

Whether he will be able to vote is another issue - a day after arriving home, he surrendered himself into UN police custody.

Lopes is a former company commander of the Dadurus Merah Putih militia gang and figured prominently on United Nations arrest warrants for serious crimes committed in Maliana district during 1999.

By all accounts he was tiring of life in the camps, and without the UN's knowledge, had been secretly negotiating to return to Saburai with his entire village community of 237 former residents, many suffering from ill-health and malnutrition.

Even more remarkable was his decision to return along with 34 ex-militiamen, including 18 Jakarta loyalists linked to allegations of murder, multiple murder, torture, rape or arson.

The success of the repatriation owed much to the fact that it was conducted without Indonesian authorities' knowledge. They were as surprised as the UN to learn that on June 10 Lopes had led the entire community along a remote mountain path into East Timor, to Lontama, a collection of stone huts close to the main village of Saburai.

Patrol leader Lieutenant Troy Huckstepp was the first Australian officer to meet Lopes when he came to Saburai.

"He seemed aware that he'd been a bad boy and would have to face justice and said he was tired of hiding in the camps living in poor conditions. Their food was drying up and their hygiene was poor," Lieutenant Huckstepp said. "I think he just wanted to come back and start a new life with his community."

Except for Lopes, all the militia have now been interviewed and allowed to return to Lontama.

UN investigators based with the Serious Crimes Unit say militia violence in Maliana district after the 1999 referendum was among the worst in East Timor. Dozens of independence supporters were killed, including more than 40 refugees sheltering at the Maliana police station. Lopes is alleged to have been involved.

Major Paul McKay, in charge of Civil Military Affairs, said clan and blood ties caused the Lontama community to return.

"There is a push towards a kind of homegrown reconciliation and it appears to be quite effective," he said. "But at the end of the day, I think it is accepted that they know they have to answer for any crimes they have committed."

The remoteness of parts of Maliana and its porous border with West Timor mean the district is the main route used by militias to enter East Timor.

Not all attempts are successful. Olandina Loka Beri, another Dadurus Merah Putih member, escaped a near lynching at Ritabou village three kilometres from Maliana town last month.

Like Lopes, he has been moved to Dili where he has since provided a witness account of the Maliana police station massacre.

His near lynching is evidence that reconciliation in East Timor is still a distant dream unless there is accompanying justice for the victims of militia violence.

An initiative to track down Halilintar militia leader, Paulo Goncalves, wanted for multiple murder, rape and a grenade attack on Australian peacekeepers at Aidabasalala, received a setback last week when independence leader Xanana Gusmao criticised a 4RAR poster campaign appealing for public help to arrest Goncalves.

Mr Gusmao claimed East Timorese leaders were not consulted about the posters and the campaign jeopardised his efforts to broker a Timor-style reconciliation. But his comments quickly attracted a barrage of criticism from East Timorese.

"Reconciliation must come with justice, not reconciliation just because our leaders want it," said a woman who would only give her name as Filomena.

Laura Abrantes, who heads an education and training program for women survivors of militia violence, also strongly supported the posters.

"Survivors in remote villages in the mountains say to me 'where is the justice for women?' We are suffering, we are without our husbands. People disappeared, people were killed."

Mr Gusmao plans to meet 28 militiamen and East Timorese refugee leaders on Saturday to encourage the return of tens of thousands of refugees from West Timor.


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