Subject: SCMP: Focus: East Timor: Praying for justice

South China Morning Post Wednesday, September 12, 2001


Praying for justice


Photo: In remembrance: East Timorese attend a memorial mass for massacre victims in Suai. Associated Press photo

The barefoot children were scrambling up the bougainvillea bushes to gather fresh clusters of the flowers - the only bright spot in the dry, dusty and still-devastated landscape of the East Timorese town of Memo.

Just across the river bed is Indonesian-controlled West Timor, and across this border Indonesian-backed militia forced tens of thousands of East Timorese who voted for independence just over two years ago.

On August 27, 1999, three days before the ballot, an organised and armed mob of 400 militia arrived in Memo. Eyewitnesses are still not sure who threw the first stone, but independent observers agree the conflict was planned by pro-Indonesian groups to intimidate the pro-independence population. By the end of that day, two locals were shot dead and most homes in the town burned to the ground.

In one of the first of the ceremonies which have been taking place across East Timor recently - and will continue this week - the people of Memo commemorated the tragedy of two years ago with a special church service and procession to the graves of the victims. Memories do not fade here but are sustained and participated in by all - including the children collecting the bougainvillea offerings.

It was moving. The church bell tolled, teenagers readied themselves for the choir, mothers breast-fed their babies and some worshippers knelt alone outside, wanting to hoard their private store of grief.

Father Lazarus Mau, who, curiously, is of Indonesian stock, has tended this flock for 10 years. He exhorted the overflowing church to give thanks for those still alive and said: "Through such tragedies we achieved our national liberation."

Although independence is on its way and a successful democratic election has been accomplished, the East Timorese have yet to see much sign of the justice promised when the United Nations bandwagon came to town.

The mobs who trashed Memo, for example, are camped in West Timor. The case is a minor one by East Timorese standards and is not on the list of prioritised massacres at the UN's Serious Crimes Unit.

At the larger town of Maliana nearby, much more destruction and murder took place in a systematic process led by Indonesian-backed militias. Two years on, the town remains a wasteland of wrecked buildings and shattered lives. No prosecutions have taken place. No one is in jail for what they did here.

"People don't express disappointment as such, but they strongly hope prosecutions will happen," said Lazarus dos Santos, from the Maliana branch of Yayasan Hak, a leading local human-rights organisation.

"People are not interested in revenge but in a legal process. If it takes two or three months or two or three years, it's OK. But ever since Untaet [the United Nations Transitional Administration of East Timor] has been here, we see their progress rate has been very slow.

"The people here still don't have a true sense of what Untaet is doing for them, and Untaet does not communicate well to the people," he said.

It's easy to slam the UN administration for failing to move faster on prosecutions for the gross crimes against East Timor's people. But it would be hard to summarise the many impediments facing a justice process here.

The first question is where to start - with the entire Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the period leading up to the 1999 ballot, or only the viciousness inflicted after it? And how to start? Should it be through the mass import of a foreign legal system replete with experienced judges and lawyers, or should priority be put on building an East Timorese judiciary?

The Serious Crimes Unit has decided on 10 priority cases and has 30 investigators compiling evidence of major incidents of mass murder, forced deportation, rape and torture. So far, 31 indictments have been issued against 50 individuals for serious crimes. Thirteen cases have been completed at trial-court level, resulting in 11 convictions. Of four planned district courts, just the Dili District Court in the capital is functioning properly, with two international and one East Timorese judge.

There also are six indictments charging 26 individuals with crimes against humanity. One trial of 10 people accused of crimes against humanity in the Los Palos massacre - the September 25, 1999, killings of two nuns, four male clergy, an Indonesian journalist and a teenage girl - was started just nine months after formation of the Serious Crimes Unit, which is a record compared with the performance of the international tribunals set up for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

But that is all. A comprehensive report by Amnesty International in July this year concludes that "law and order is now barely being maintained, justice is not being administered effectively, and the human rights of the East Timorese people cannot be guaranteed".

It strongly criticises efforts to establish an East Timorese judiciary, saying what exists is still "fragile". It details cases of direct political interference in legal processes, which remain unpunished. It highlights the weaknesses of the UN's civilian police contingent - which one diplomat described as "a pig's breakfast" - and notes that existing courts and investigators' offices lack basic facilities such as pen and paper.

It says the rights of suspects to fair trial have been lost as they languish for months in detention without charges being filed.

"The slow pace and questionable quality of its work has resulted in a loss of confidence among the East Timorese in Untaet's ability or will to bring perpetrators to justice," the report says.

Investigation units in far-flung areas of East Timor are seriously under-staffed, a detailed database of alleged crimes has yet to be completed, witnesses are dead or still stuck in West Timor, and it is always possible to find UN staff focused more on their daily allowances and car rights than on pursuing difficult and dangerous roads to justice for the East Timorese.

Only the presence of many dedicated individuals, especially in the districts outside Dili and many of them on volunteer terms, has sustained the faith of some East Timorese that justice will eventually prevail. Against odds ranging from lack of transport to the obfuscation of UN bureaucracy, such individuals have continued to compile cases, secure opportunities for testimony and to input them into the UN system.

"There's no question we have to tighten up our management and our whole approach," said Dennis McNamara, the UN's Deputy Transitional Administrator in East Timor.

He arrived just over a month ago and sees one of his key goals to be a wide-ranging revamp of the justice ministry. He wants to give new impetus and priority to the entire issue of justice and human rights in East Timor. He is also overseeing the panel involved in setting up a Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission which will mesh traditional village-level reconciliation methods for lesser crimes with referral of serious crimes to the judicial process.

He is devising what he calls a "justice package" to list the personnel and equipment urgently needed to make serious progress with the serious crimes. This package will be taken to donors, to beg for lawyers willing to work for less than usual, and for money specifically targeted towards justice and not just to the bottomless pit of UN bureaucracy.

He has a difficult task ahead, not least in inspiring his own staff at the Serious Crimes Unit and elsewhere in the UN. Some remember the Fisk Report, an earlier internal attempt to tackle management problems at the unit. Confidentiality had been promised so that details of where the process was going wrong could be collected. But confidentiality was blown.

Only one of the staff who gave information still has a job, and all those at the top of the administration named as impediments to justice kept their jobs.

Mr McNamara said the Fisk Report was one of the first things he read and that he was focusing on implementing its recommendations - hoping to persuade embittered investigators to trust him to get it right this time. Management changes were already under way.

"It's long-term stuff. There is no quick fix. Training a local judiciary is a massive process. And you're right, it is partly our fault in that we didn't prioritise it enough," Mr McNamara said.

But what of the larger picture? How does East Timor heal its wounds and move on? If president-in-waiting Xanana Gusmao is to be believed, the way forward is to focus more on reconciliation than on justice. Many of his people disagree. Widows and children of the dead want the perpetrators brought to trial and are happy to leave reconciliation till later.

But Mr Xanana wants to bring his people home from West Timor, where militia bosses are awaiting signs of soft treatment before letting the groups they control to return home across the border. Meetings between Mr Xanana and militia bosses, facilitated by senior Untaet staff, are geared to getting these men home regardless of their crimes - and that political compromise will inevitably compromise some victims' hopes for justice.

"But we've got to prioritise justice," Mr McNamara said. "It's the glue that holds post-conflict situations together."

Vaudine England ( is the Post's Jakarta correspondent.

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