Subject: ABC: Reconciliation Commission underway

EAST TIMOR: Reconciliation Commission underway 27/03/2003 13:37:32 | Asia Pacific Programs

East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation has been up and running for over three months now and has accepted over 100 minor political criminals back into their villages. Another 100 offenders have stepped forward to come before the commission, where village elders are given the power to reject or accept back minor criminals who confess to their role in past violence. The Commission is helping to heal the trauma of East Timor's past, but it's becoming clear the system isn't pulling in the bulk of those accused of committing crimes.


FITZGERALD: East Timor looked at South African and Australian reconciliation efforts when it was trying to find a way to bring the society back together again after years of violence.

It already had a UN backed Serious Crimes Unit for major crimes against humanity, which occurred at the time of the independence referendum in 1999.

But there was political pressure for the government to have a way of encouraging people accused of more minor crimes back into their villages.

The commission, which has been set up, will eventually compile a truth report on the basis of its hearings.

On the reconciliation side East Timor's commission has set up village panels, which hear minor cases where perpetrators step forward and confess to their crimes.

It has a wider reach than the Serious Crimes Unit as it covers political crimes committed as far back as 1975, the year Indonesian troops invaded East Timor.

Spencer Zifcak of the International Commission of Jurists has just returned from working with the East Timorese Commission.

ZIFCAK: "If the perpetrators were already living in their villages happily then they wouldn't bother to come before the Commission.

"But they have thus far come in large numbers and there are currently reconciliation hearings happening right across the country before regional and district panels, that have as their purpose the reintegration of perpetrators into their community.

"And to do that the reconciliation panels have to consider what form of reparation the perpetrator must make before the reintegration can take place.

"For example by perpetrator purchasing or giving a goat and a sheep to the victim or agreeing to build a school or agreeing to rebuild houses that were destroyed by them during the conflict."

FITZGERALD: What sort of people are coming before the Commission? What sort of crimes have they committed?

ZIFCAK: "House burnings, minor assaults, other sorts of action of intimidation, thieving and looting are the sorts of crimes that are now being considered as part of the reconciliation process."

FITZGERALD: The commission sometimes only orders an apology from an offender but the important part seems to be that the power rests with the village elders to reject or accept back the culprits.

Spencer Zifcak says one of the drawbacks of the system is though that there is pressure on the elders to forgive and forget.

ZIFCAK: "There's only been one case out of the hundred or so that have been heard as far as I'm aware in which a victim said no, I'm just not going to accept the condition and I do not forgive you.

"And we expect given the scale of the crimes that were committed during that period that there would have been a somewhat higher refusal rate. So I have a little residual worry that the victims will feel pressured by the process that's been established."

FITZGERALD: Another much bigger problem is that unlike the South African model the East Timorese Commission doesn't offer pardons for moderate or major crimes. This means hundreds of more serious criminals just do not volunteer to come before the commission.

Most are not charged with serious enough crimes to be dealt with by the Serious Crimes Unit, which only looks at crimes against humanity, but their alleged crimes are too serious for them to be dealt with by the commission.

ZIFCAK: "There is a significant problem with a middle group of offenders if we can call them that, people who have committed moderately serious crimes."


ZIFCAK: "Such as systematic burning of houses, systematic looting and the commission of individual instances of torture or rape but that aren't systematic enough for them to be regarded as crimes against humanity.

"So these are quite serious crimes but don't fall into the broad international definition of what a crime against humanity is.

"And these people as you rightly say are not likely to come to the Commission and confess these crimes because they would calculate that the commission wouldn't hear their cases but rather would refer them for prosecution. So they're staying away."

FITZGERALD: So where are they, what are they doing?

ZIFCAK: "Well they're in other parts of the country or they're across the border in West Timor. They are in effect disguising their past or not admitting to it."

FITZGERALD: Those accused of moderate crimes are left for East Timor's normal police and court system to deal with, and that's a system Spencer Zifcak says is just not working.

A government decision that all court cases will be conducted in Portuguese for example, is creating havoc as there are not enough Portuguese speaking lawyers and judges to hear cases.

Spencer Zifcak says once the community realises that the majority of people accused of committing violent political crimes won't be tried, there will be widespread anger.

ZIFCAK: "What is already beginning to happen at the reconciliation hearings, and I was present at a couple over which statements of this kind were made, is that members of the local community are getting up and saying well, we agree with reconciling with this particular person but where are all the serious offenders?

"We know of many others but they don't seem to be coming before this particular panel. What happens to them?

"And the answer is well they won't come before the panels; they will have to be presented against in the ordinary courts of the land.

"And what isn't yet widely known is that the prospects of that happening are very distant if they occur at all, and once it's appreciated that amongst the serious offenders, 60 per cent are never going to be prosecuted because they're in Indonesia or West Timor, and this middle group is also not going to be prosecuted and that the only system that's operating really effectively is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the procedure for minor criminals, then I think there'll be a significant degree of restiveness in the wider community."

Transcripts from programs "AM", "The World Today", "PM", the "7:30 Report" and "Lateline" are created by an independent transcription service. The ABC does not warrant the accuracy of the transcripts. ABC Online users are advised to listen to the audio provided on this page to verify the accuracy of the transcripts.

27/03/2003 13:37:32 | Asia Pacific Programs

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