Subject: SCMP: Old grievances fester as the justice system stalls

South China Morning Post March 13, 2003


Old grievances fester as the justice system stalls


In the mist of East Timor's central mountains, Florindo Soares explains why he helped kill his neighbour's brother 25 years ago. Outside the schoolhouse, a bird of prey circles majestically over a lake backed by lush rainforest, like an omen. Nine months after East Timor finally gained independence, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has come to Catrai Leten to help its people iron out their differences, East Timor-style. In 1977 this was a war zone, one kept well out of the world's eyes by the Indonesian invaders.

Six "deponents" have asked for forgiveness for their past crimes through a traditional reconciliation ceremony.

But this process is not supposed to deal with murder cases. It was designed largely to give lower ranking militiamen a chance to apologise and make amends for relatively minor crimes they committed under threat of death in 1999, things like house burnings. Mr Soares was an accessory to murder.

Apparently for lack of an alternative, the commission has had to deal with Soares' case as well. And that means he will never be tried. Once these hearings are complete, no further legal action is possible, unless the deponent fails to comply with the punishment set down.

In Soares' case, the punishment is a public apology and participation in a traditional reconciliation ceremony involving chewing the betel nut. The victim's family does not appear totally satisfied with such justice.

By his own reckoning, Soares is now 45, but he looks a lot older. He is clearly a broken man. He says he voted for the ruling Fretilin party in the 2001 general election and for President Xanana Gusmao last year. For around two decades, however, he worked for the Indonesian military as a hansip, a member of the civilian assistance forces the military (TNI) employs all over Indonesia.

At the height of the war between Indonesia and Fretilin, Soares was ordered to kill Maukoli, a local man who was distantly related to him. The order came from the TNI commander for the area.

The killing took place in Pahe Luha, a village a short distance from Catrai Leten. At the time, thousands of East Timorese were starving as Jakarta carried out a war of attrition against Fretilin, and were desperately hunting for food wherever they could find it.

Maukoli had been spotted foraging for food and wood near the edge of the Fretilin zone. The local Indonesian military commanders decided his loyalties were suspect and that he had to be killed. They ordered their Timorese assistants to carry out the job, and it fell to Soares' unit.

He led Maukoli out into the forest. But at the last minute, he could not carry out the deed. Another man who had accompanied him, Maumali, pulled the trigger. Soares said: "I did not shoot him. I ordered another person [to shoot]."

When East Timor's Truth and Reconciliation Commission received a request that this incident be dealt with through a public hearing in Catrai Leten, it flagged the case as unsuitable. But the Serious Crimes Unit, which vets all such requests, allowed it to go through anyway.

Serious crimes are defined as murder, rape, torture and the organising of violence. Although no one doubts that Soares would likely have been executed himself had he refused to carry out the order, normally a case such as this would be considered outside the remit of the commission.

Commission officials said they could only assume that the Serious Crimes Unit realised a crime that took place so long ago would simply never become enough of a priority for them to deal with. Their own mandate from the United Nations only permits the Serious Crimes Unit to deal with crimes committed in 1999.

While the politicians wrangle over the indictments in Dili of former Indonesian military chief Wiranto and top militiamen Joao Tavares and Eurico Guterres, a host of other crimes like this remain unsolved.

Commission officials privately admit they are frustrated with the slow work of the Serious Crimes Unit, whose staff are simply snowed under with cases. They have more than 1,000 murders to deal with from 1999 alone. So far only two cases have actually reached trial, and only one has been concluded.

Commission officials said they can only assume Soares' case got the green light because the Serious Crimes Unit knew it would take too long to deal with in any other way.

Although Maukoli's immediate family embraced Soares and publicly accepted his apology, they clearly have not forgiven him. Maukoli's nephew Angelino Martins, who spoke for the family at the hearing, said he believed Soares should still be tried for what he did. Furthermore, he said, the man who actually carried out the murder, Maumali, is still living freely in the area. They have never revealed where Maukoli's body lies.

"At that time there was still war so we did not dare check. Up to now he has not shown us the place where he is buried," said Mr Martins, 39. "I am disappointed, because of the loss of a member of my family."

Maukoli could not read or write, he added, insisting that he genuinely had been foraging for food.

Prosecutor General Longuinhos Monteiro makes no bones about his deep concerns over the justice system's future. Even after the UN planned withdrawal next year, the justice system will still need major support, he said, and it remains a big, open question as to whether that support will be there. The UN spends US$40 million (HK$312 million) a year on serious crimes, while it does not have even US$4,000 to spend on ordinary crimes, Mr Monteiro said.

Smoking heavily in his office, Mr Monteiro shows a legal order issued by one of his own investigating judges. For cultural reasons, many East Timorese are unhappy about having an autopsy performed on a relative's body, even when the demands of justice require one.

In this instance, an investigating judge caved in to a family's demands to release the body of a victim in a recent shooting incident. The shooting was an important case, linked to a recent string of militia incursions from West Timor.

"They say it doesn't matter whether there is justice or not," said Mr Monteiro. "We are told we violate human rights because we damage the body."

Leaving aside the larger issues of whether or not Wiranto and his fellow top officers will or should face trial, justice in East Timor is already on very shaky ground. With the UN mission due to leave next year, the fear is that time may be running out.

The Serious Crimes Unit has come up with a list of 281 cases relating to the 1999 violence, of which only 10 have been cited as priorities. About 98 suspects are still outside East Timor, most if not all in Indonesia.

"How are all these cases going to be tried, given the resources there are here?" said one UN source in Dili. "Are they going to be finished by June 2004?"

Back to March menu

World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from