Subject: Time: East Timor: Slow Road to Justice

Time March 24, 2003

Slow Road to Justice

After decades of brutal persecution, the people of East timor must wait a little longer for redress


The young boy returned to the mountain village of Letefoho in fear and disgrace. He was a child in 1999 when, swept up in the militia violence that followed East Timor's vote for independence, he burnt down his aunt's house and fled. When he finally came home this year, the teenager had no idea of what he would face. He bought new roofing material for his aunt and waited. And in a public ceremony last month, he apologized to her and to his neighbors, and was forgiven.

Across East Timor, hundreds like him have come home. A few have returned to beatings. But many more, in village hearings organized by the nation's one-year-old Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), have been accepted back into their communities. In the Letefoho area alone, the CAVR has been asked to help with 39 such meetings since December. But reconciliation with their neighbors is not the only justice the East Timorese want. For more serious crimes, for the killings, rapes and torture of 1999 and the 24 years of Indonesian occupation before that, they want the justice of a courtroom. That process has been slow and hard. And when last month's indictment of key Indonesian military figures for war crimes was welcomed by the population but not by President Xanana Gusmão, many East Timorese felt more confused than ever about when justice will be done.

The 1999 campaign of violence forced an estimated 250,000 people into West Timor; some of whom had fled there to leave their crimes behind. Today all but about 28,000 have come home, among them those accused of lesser crimes, such as assault, intimidation and theft. So far, 200 of these have volunteered statements to CAVR. Such gatherings, says Commissioner Isabel Guterres, can be emotional events: "They hug and cry and say, 'You are like me. We are the little people.' It's the leaders they want brought to justice."

Charged with doing that is the nation's new judicial system, along with the U.N.-established Special Panel for Serious Crimes and the investigators of the Serious Crimes Unit. There's been some progress, with 32 convictions so far, and 58 indictments—involving 240 people—issued by the Se SCU. But more than half the accused remain at large in Indonesia. And creating a judicial system from nothing has proved a massive task. Delays, language problems and inexperienced lawyers plague the system, says Nelson Belo of the Judicial System Monitoring Programme: "Defendants don't know their rights or understand the court process."

Amid the frustration, good news came on Feb.24, with the lodging in Dili of the most significant indictments yet: charges against the former governor of East Timor, and seven key military figures, including the now retired Indonesian Minister of Defence, General Wiranto. Charged with crimes against humanity, the eight were indicted for 280 alleged murders, based on more than 1,500 witness statements. The charges brought "new hope to the people," says Jose Luis de Oliveira, head of the NGO Yayasan HAK. "Before that people were feeling frustrated that politicians were not being vocal and nothing was being done."

But not everyone in East Timor rejoiced at the news. Instead, a political flurry has erupted, with Gusmão expressing his dismay about the impact such high-profile charges may have on East Timor's evolving ties with its powerful neighbor. The independence of the judicial process is clear, says Gusmão's chief of staff, Agio Pereira, "but the President also considers the relationship with the Indonesian government to be of paramount importance for our own development." For now, the indictments remain in limbo: East Timor has no extradition treaty with Indonesia, and it's unclear whether the warrants, which must pass through the foreign ministry, will even be sent to Indonesia. But the symbolism is potent—which is why Foreign Ministerr Jose Ramos Horta travelled to Indonesia soon after the indictments were lodged to reassure Indonesia that the bilateral bond remained the new nation's focus. "Justice must not come second," says Pereira, "but the issue the President raises is how to honor justice—and that is not by revenge." For Gusmão, the best way is economic development. "It will be meaningless if we have all the perpetrators in jail, but the people continue to face infant mortality, endemic and epidemic diseases, without a decent home, without clean water and food," he said on Feb. 17. Gusmão argues Indonesia is the key to such growth. The U.N. mission in East Timor agrees. Says mission chief Kamalesh Sharma: "I'm hopeful that the maturity of relations between both countries would insulate them from the trials and tribulations of the independent decisions of a judicial process."

But many are deeply unhappy that their popular president, a former resistance leader and prisoner, seems willing to put that relationship above key indictments. "For us it is justice first, not development," says Yayasan HAK's de Oliveira. "Justice is not about destroying the relationship between Indonesia and East Timor but it is a fundamental need of the people." JSMP's Belo says people are pessimistic about the indictments, and feel the U.N. too has "washed its hands of them." Others are simply confused. "People feel men like this should have to take responsibility for what they did," says Sister Theresa Ward, who has been working with East Timorese since 1995. "They can't understand why these men won't face court." A lifting of poverty is vital, says CAVR Commissioner Isabel Guterres, but everywhere, people ask when justice will come. They are willing to wait, she says, "but something must happen."

As they wait, the East Timorese have new violence to worry about. A riot in Dili in December has been followed this year by two attacks outside the capital by armed gangs, prompting the U.N. to recommend a slowing of the planned phased withdrawal of its 3,800-strong peacekeeping force. Only one of the gangs was caught, and PKF Commander Major-General Tan Huck Gim says another five could be at large, despite PKF efforts to find them. Some local communities fear the gangs are returning militia; Tan says though they may contain some ex-militia, the gangs have more basic motives: "They come to steal and they go back to where they're from because they know the people and the terrain—and they know who there has money." The military chief rates the gangs as East Timor's biggest long-term security threat: "The people of Timor-Leste are justifiably concerned." If such gangs are indeed driven by hunger and poverty, President Gusmão may be right in seeing economic development as his nation's ticket to stability. Now he must reassure his people that some delay in the quest for justice is a price worth paying for their future prosperity.

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