Subject: The Australian: Balibo probe stalls over exhumation

The Australian

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Balibo probe stalls over exhumation

Caroline Overington

A FEDERAL police probe into the death of five newsmen in Balibo in 1975 has stalled due to a dispute between the families over whether the remains of the bodies, which are buried in a single grave, should be exhumed and examined for forensic evidence.

The dispute means it is unlikely that Indonesian military officers, including one who later became an MP, will face a potentially explosive and diplomatically damaging war crimes trial, as recommended by a Sydney coroner in 2007.

Coroner Dorelle Pinch found that the five reporters, working for the Seven and Nine networks, were killed in order to cover up Indonesia's impending invasion of East Timor. She said the Balibo Five were unarmed, had surrendered, and were dressed in civilian clothes when they were shot and bayoneted, and their bodies set alight.

The coroner referred the matter last year to Attorney-General Robert McClelland, who in January passed the file to the federal police. They now say they are unable to collect the forensic evidence because the families are divided over whether the single grave should be exhumed.

Anne Stewart, sister of Tony Stewart, the Channel Seven sound recordist formerly of North Caulfield, and her mother, June, are reluctant to have the grave exhumed.

Ms Stewart told The Weekend Australian yesterday that the Department of Foreign Affairs had reduced her ``big beautiful brother to a pile of gruesome DNA''.

``They wrote us a letter, telling us what would need to happen if the bodies were to be exhumed,'' she said.

``They said Indonesia would have to agree, and there might be issues, because what if all five aren't in there.

``They said there would have to be some bone that DNA could be extracted from. It was all pretty gruesome.

``We had a meeting with the other families about it, and there are different views, with some saying they want the bodies, but the problem is, nobody is helping to bring us together.

``If it was up to me, I'd rather have courses in democracy than a (war crimes) trial.''

John Milkins Cunningham, the biological son of camerman Gary Cunningham, believes the Rudd government is using the dispute between the families to defend itself from criticism that it has not confronted Indonesia over the bloody 1975 invasion of East Timor.

He said the strategy appeared to be one of ``divide and conquer the families'' to stall the official probe. The Attorney-General's office said the decision to formally investigate the matter was ``taken by the AFP entirely independent of government''.

``The investigation of war crimes is complex, particularly in circumstances where there has been a considerable lapse of time and surviving witnesses are located overseas,'' an office spokesman said.

``Ultimately, decisions in relation to the commencement of any prosecution are for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, again acting independently of government.''

When the coroner said in 2007 that the evidence suggested that Captain Yunus Yosfiah, now 65, and a former Indonesian parliamentarian and minister, could face charges, Kevin Rudd, then the opposition leader, said: ``I believe this has to be taken through to its logical conclusion. I also believe those responsible should be held to account. You can't just sweep this to one side.''

Mr Milkins Cunningham said the invasion of Timor and the death of the Balibo Five was a ``stain on the Whitlam government's copybook that Rudd had an opportunity to erase''.

Australia's leading historian on East Timor, Clinton Fernandes, consulting historian on the new film Balibo, said there was unlikely to be anything of forensic value in the box of cindered remains. ``It was a shoebox, with the bones reduced to ash,'' Dr Fernandes said. ``They don't need that box to bring the matter forward. There are plenty of witnesses, who testified at the coronial inquest, who would be prepared to testify again.''

The role played by the Whitlam government when Indonesia invaded East Timor has been the subject of new attention since the release of Balibo. Indonesia dismissed the film as fiction.

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