Subject: BG: Lagging tribunal is called a threat to a viable East Timor

Lagging tribunal is called a threat to a viable East Timor

Slaughter suspects elude UN's reach

By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 9/2/2001

UNITED NATIONS - A year and a half after the bloodbath that marked East Timor's violent birth as an independent nation, a United Nations effort to bring culprits to account for war crimes in the ravaged country is lagging badly.

East Timor's people voted in their first election last week to begin the process of electing a parliament and becoming self-governing. But critics, including staff who quit the UN mission in frustration, say the failure to move swiftly to try those who killed and looted in a bid to keep East Timor tied to Indonesia has clouded the effort to build a viable nation.

With the UN mission that has run East Timor entering its final months, only one war crimes trial - with 10 defendants - has gotten underway. Dozens of lesser suspects have been charged and are behind bars, but those most responsible for orchestrating the slaughter that followed a 1999 referendum for independence in the former Portuguese colony remain safely in Indonesia.

Holding war criminals accountable is just one part of the UN's mission. But from the start, many people familiar with the mission say, there were not enough resources or trained personnel to do so properly.

Even today, there are only nine attorneys to represent all of the accused. Prosecutors and investigators complain about inadequate management, as well as a lack of cars, court stenographers, and a functioning database of investigative findings.

''Justice is still far from what we expected,'' Arsenio Bano of the East Timor NGO Forum, which represents 110 local nonprofit groups, said in a telephone interview. ''We think the UN needs to work much harder.''

With the recent political shakeup in Indonesia, bringing justice to East Timor is more urgent than ever, regional specialists say. Many fear that the new Indonesian president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose party has close ties to military leaders who backed the East Timor militias responsible for much of the widespread killing and destruction, will not hold them accountable.

A strong justice system in East Timor would make it easier to rally international pressure on Indonesia, they say. ''The whole justice system is key to East Timor's future,'' said Lucia Withers of Amnesty International in London.

In a UN-supervised vote in September 1999, 80 percent of East Timor's voters opted for independence from Indonesia, which had seized control after Portugal gave up its former colony in 1975. But militias backed by the Indonesian Army immediately began what the New York-based Human Rights Watch has called ''a campaign of murder, arson, and forced expulsions.''

Tens of thousands of people were ousted from their homes, villages burned and razed, and civilians murdered.

After the violence ended, the UN agreed to assume temporarily the administration and defense of East Timor. A UN panel concluded the violence was widespread and systematic enough to warrant establishment of a war crimes tribunal, but the UN Security Council chose not to do so.

The hope was that Indonesia would prosecute the culprits among its own citizens, while the UN, in addition to rebuilding the entire country from scratch, would help establish a functioning judiciary.

The mission created a Serious Crimes Investigations Unit to bring cases as well as special international judicial panels to try war crimes. But that effort was quickly beset by mismanagement, weak leadership, and inadequate resources, current and former staff members say.

At one point, 10 badly needed jeeps were grounded for weeks in the parking lot as the UN mission and the United States, which donated the vehicles, tussled over who would insure them.

Even now, because there are no court stenographers, one judge takes notes on his laptop computer. All serious court proceedings are on hold because all nine public defenders are preoccupied with the current trial.

''If we want to make East Timor a success story, the international community needs to provide ongoing support,'' said Patrick Burgess, director of the mission's human rights section. The mission's budget this year is $28 million.

Former and current UN mission staff members say the Serious Crimes Unit also lacks an overall investigative strategy and suffers from haphazard management. Recommendations for improvements by a UN investigator earlier this year have gone largely unheeded, former staff members say. ''What is baffling is why despite so many reports about the serious failings of the system and its inability to bring justice to the East Timorese, nothing is done to fix the problems,'' said Suzannah Linton, a former prosecutor with the Serious Crimes Unit.

''The most fundamental problem is the apparent absence of institutional accountability,'' one unnamed staff member wrote in a resignation letter circulated on the Internet last week.

Barbara Reis, a spokeswoman for the UN mission, defended the unit's track record and said it had moved swiftly to address shortcomings. The unit recently received additional resources, and there now are 25 investigators among the staff of 46.

Noting that the first trial of 10 men accused of crimes against humanity, among other crimes, is now underway, Reis added, ''What is remarkable in a country where no infrastructure existed and no public administration was working is that a big case is already being tried.''

Critics acknowledge the massive task that faced the UN mission. Creating a functioning judiciary - much less a special unit for prosecuting serious war crimes - was no easy job.

But many charge that the task of delivering justice was treated as a low priority. ''It was not taken seriously,'' Carlos Vasconcelos, a Brazilian prosecutor who quit the UN mission last year, said in a telephone interview from Brazil.

''Much has been achieved in a short time,'' said former prosecutor Linton. ''But that does not detract from the fact that the criminal justice system has become the black mark'' on the UN mission's record in East Timor.

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