Subject: Age: Ravished East Timor still struggles to find justice

The Age Saturday 29 September 2001

Ravished East Timor still struggles to find justice


Sister Erminia somehow survived the volley of rifle fire that tore into her van at a militia roadblock two years ago.

The Catholic nun, almost 70 years old, got out and knelt down to pray while the militia made sure none of the seven people with her survived.

The driver of the van was already dead, killed by a shot fired by the militia hiding in a ditch by the road east of Baucau.

One man was hacked to death with a sword as he tried to get out of the van, which was punctured by 21 bullet holes. The militiamen doused it with petrol, set it alight with people still inside, and shot at anybody who still tried to run, then pushed the van into a river.

A second nun, two deacons, a student priest, Indonesian journalist Agus Mulyawan and two others in the van all died in the ambush on September 25, 1999.

The prayers of Sister Erminia, an Italian who had served in East Timor for more than 30 years, didn't save her, either. Joni Marques, the militia commander, shot her twice, threw her into the water, and then lobbed a grenade.

These are the allegations prosecutors are trying to prove against 10 East Timorese accused in the first crimes against humanity trial connected with the violence surrounding East Timor's 1999 referendum on independence from Indonesia.

Two years after departing Indonesian forces left East Timor's entire government structure, including the judiciary, in ruins, it is here in a refurbished courtroom that the first efforts at justice are being made.

It is a start, but justice in East Timor alone is not enough, says Sergio Vieira de Mello, who heads the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor.

"No, I believe it is in the interest of East Timor and Indonesia to put this behind them and the only way to do that is to face the realities, face the truth, face the facts, and to indict and try those who are suspects of crimes against humanity," Mr de Mello said in an interview.

Indonesian authorities say they are recruiting special judges to sit on a human rights tribunal that could start later this year to hear cases related to the East Timor violence. Indonesian prosecutors last year named 23 Indonesian military and other suspects in the campaign of terror but none have been formally charged.

Mr de Mello supports bringing those 23 suspects before Indonesian tribunals. Other observers doubt it will happen.

"I have little hope that they will ever be tried in Indonesia," a Western diplomat said. "I've seen a lot of talk but not much done."

Indonesia's delays have sparked calls for an international war crimes tribunal but such a court would have to be endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, which some diplomats think is unlikely.

Xanana Gusmao, who is almost certain to be elected East Timor's first president next year, takes a more conciliatory approach than many towards Indonesia's effort at justice.

"I believe it is time to put an end, to put a stone on the past and to start building a new environment for the future," he said in an interview.

Referring to East Timor's poor health-care system and many other challenges the new country faces, he said: "We cannot only focus our attention on justice, putting people in prison when independence means that we must pay attention to social justice, economic justice."

Mr Gusmao's attitude makes Manuel Carrascalao uncomfortable. Mr Carrascalao's teenage son, Manuelito, was among about a dozen people murdered in April, 1999, when militia members stormed Mr Carrascalao's Dili home, which had become a shelter for refugees fleeing terror in the countryside.

Mr Carrascalao is not opposed to reconciliation but he wants criminals punished, which he thinks is unlikely in the Indonesian justice system. "I don't trust it," he said.

The Carrascalao case is under investigation by a UN serious crimes unit of 31 international police officers and nine prosecutors who specialise in militia crimes.

"We have so few resources," said Jean-Louis Gilissen, the deputy general prosecutor. Officially, his team has evidence that 674 murders were committed in East Timor during 1999. Mr Gilissen, a Belgian, admits the unofficial number is much higher.

Even the lower figure is too much to handle for his small team, which has been forced to focus on key cases like Mr Carrascalao's and the ambush of Sister Erminia. Mr Gilissen calls it "maybe a miracle" that they have issued six indictments for crimes against humanity, including the attack on the clergy.

As the UN moves to hand over most government operations to East Timorese before full independence, expected early next year, doubts have been raised about whether even the present over-stretched judicial effort will be able to continue.

"One cannot but wonder at how, even with international assistance, an independent East Timor is expected to cope with continuing this extraordinarily costly and time-consuming experiment in international justice," Suzannah Linton, a former UN serious crimes prosecutor, wrote recently in the Melbourne University Law Review.

For now, though, this is the only justice there is.

At the trial, which began in July and is expected to last several more weeks, prosecutors are trying to prove that the September 25 attack by Team Alfa militia against Sister Erminia and the other clergy was part of a widespread or systematic attack on the civilian population: a crime against humanity.

The ambush was the culmination of a series of crimes committed by Team Alfa, which the prosecution alleges shared a headquarters with the Indonesian Army's Special Forces, Kopassus, and worked under their command.

Team Alfa, based in the eastern East Timor town of Los Palos, was just one of many anti-independence militia operating in East Timor.

"They were part of a campaign carried on across East Timor. That campaign was carried out with the support and cooperation of the Indonesian civilian and military authorities," alleges the prosecution's opening statement.

In addition to the attack on the clergy, whom militia considered to be pro-independence, the accused are charged with murdering four independence activists, beginning in April, 1999, as well as the burning of more than 100 homes and the expulsion of residents in Leuro village between September 8 and 12, 1999.

Eleven men were indicted but only 10 are on trial. The other suspect, Lieutenant Syaful Anwar, is an Indonesian soldier who prosecutors allege was deputy Kopassus commander in Los Palos. Lieutenant Anwar remains at large.

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