Subject: New search for answers on Balibo Five

Sydney Morning Herald

New search for answers on Balibo Five

October 17, 2005

After three decades, an inquest offers solace and possibly justice for families and friends, writes Les Kennedy.

The first rays of dawn were breaking over the dry East Timor landscape on Thursday, October 16, 1975, when the soldiers and militia came to Balibo.

In a house in the border village were five television newsmen from Australia who had come to cover what had become a full-blown invasion by Indonesian forces in the wake of the abandonment of the former-Portuguese colony.

From Balibo, Indonesian warships had been seen off the coast the day before, but this army had come across the border from Indonesian West Timor. They were backed by militia who opposed the units thrown together by Fretilin, East Timor's fledgling government.

In an old fort above the village, a machine-gun manned by Fretilin soldiers exchanged fire with the approaching units as the darkness dissipated to a hot day. Fretilin held their ground for a while before retreating.

The day before, Australians Greg Shackleton, 27, and Tony Stewart, 21, and New Zealander Gary Cunningham, 27 - all from Channel Seven - and Britons Malcolm Rennie, 28, and Brian Peters, 29, from Channel Nine, had daubed a crude Australian flag on an exterior wall of their house with the word "Australia" to denote their neutrality. They called their temporary home "the embassy". AdvertisementAdvertisement

By the end of the day, all five lay dead inside another house nearby known to locals as "the Chinaman's house".

Their bodies were later burned over three days and what remained is now interred in a Jakarta cemetery.

Thirty years on, how they came to die remains unresolved. Claims have ranged from murder and execution to innocent victims of crossfire in the heat of battle or

while they were surrendering. There have also been claims and counter-claims of a cover-up and inaction by governments.

But for three decades there has been no solace or justice for the families and friends of the newsmen who in death became know as the Balibo Five.

Now the NSW Coroner, John Abernethy, has set his Coronial Investigation Unit - a nine-member team of detectives from the Homicide Squad - the task of putting history right.

In what is becoming an expanding role for Australian coroners, who have traditionally ruled only on deaths in their state jurisdictions, Abernethy has determined that he can hold an inquest into the death of one of the five - Brian Peters. And with whatever findings are made for Peters, he hopes to shed light on the fate of the other four.

Abernethy, who joined the Victorian Coroner, Graham Johnston, on an inspection of the sites of the 2002 Bali bombings and was involved in the formal identification of NSW victims of last year's tsunami, has ruled that although Peters was a British citizen, he can conduct an inquest because Peters was a NSW resident at the time of his death.

His decision in June followed submissions for an inquest by Peters's sister, Maureen Tolfree, of Bristol, England.

The inquest comes after five inconclusive Australian inquiries and reports - two in 1975 and one in 1976, 1996 and 1999 - as well as a 2001 investigation by UN civilian police, who were stationed in East Timor following its independence from Indonesia.

The UN investigation was conducted by the now-retired federal police superintendent Tom Hanlon of Perth and West Australian Major Crime Squad superintendent John Skeffington.

With the 30-year secrecy provisions relating to any federal cabinet documents on the invasion due to expire in December, previously unknown intelligence relating to the deaths may emerge.

Abernethy has said his inquest, which will begin hearings next year, will not examine the rights or wrongs of the occupation of East Timor.

In keeping with his office, his focus will be on issues of identification, cause of death, when and where it occurred and, if it was murder, by whom.

His investigation team is led by Detective Inspector Brett Coman, whose officers last month interviewed Skeffington and Hanlon about their investigation.

Their 2001 inquiry had gone nowhere after it was referred to UN legal officers with a recommendation that warrants be drawn for war crimes against four people, among them Indonesian military.

Coman admits the inquest faces a difficult road in getting evidence from retired Indonesian military personnel who were in Balibo on the day of the invasion, including one who rose to the rank of general and went on to be a government minister.

Nor has it been determined if the inquest will hear evidence in East Timor.

At this stage, at least eight Timorese people are expected to be called to give evidence. A ninth crucial witness, Olandino Maia Guterres, died earlier this year after a long illness.

In 1998 Guterres, who entered Balibo with Indonesian special forces, publicly accused a former Indonesian minister, Yunus Yosfiah, of ordering the deaths of the news crews after they filmed the attack.

Coman said investigators were collecting information, including photos and reports from a Northern Territory police forensic team that went to Balibo in 1975 and 2001.

The collection of material has taken the Coroner's team to Canberra and the National Archives.

The second phase is a comparative analysis of every report to see if there are any discrepancies or information not explored.

Coman said it was possible that Timorese who fled to Australia after the invasion might also have information about the attack on Balibo.

But he said an approach would be made to Indonesian authorities to participate.

"I think in fairness it would be prudent of us to put allegations of murder to them."

Abernethy has set aside December 9 to hear a progress report on the investigation.

see also UK Hansard

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