Subject: Balibo inquest begins, 31 years on
The Sydney Morning Herald
Balibo inquest begins, 31 years on
IF CANBERRA'S defence and foreign affairs establishment thought Maureen Tolfree was going to give up, this was another intelligence failure.
More than 30 years ago, she came out from her home in Bristol, England, to find out how her brother Brian Peters, a Channel Nine cameraman, had died with four other Australian-based newsmen at Balibo in East Timor.
The young Englishwoman, who had never been overseas, was baffled by a bureaucratic wall of secrecy, which she, along with other bereaved relatives, has tried to penetrate ever since.
Today, she gets vindication of sorts. An inquest into Peters's death starts at the State Coroner's Court in Glebe, the first independent inquiry of a judicial nature with powers to compel witnesses.
"It's amazing. I never thought it would happen," Mrs Tolfree, 61, said yesterday as she rested after her long flight out to attend the hearings.
The inquest - by a NSW court into the death of a British citizen in a foreign country - is a legal milestone for Australia.
In December 2000, Mrs Tolfree and her Sydney lawyer, the International Commission of Jurists activist Rodney Lewis, went to the Coroner's Court and reported Peters's violent death.
Two years ago, the then state coroner John Abernathy accepted their argument that as Peters had been a NSW resident (the only one among the five, the rest living in Melbourne) his death came within the jurisdiction of the court.
Delayed by last year's turmoil in East Timor, the inquest starts today before the Deputy State Coroner Dorelle Pinch and is expected to run for at least a month.
Among the 66 listed witnesses are a dozen Timorese who were auxiliaries with the Indonesian special forces team that attacked Balibo on October 16, 1975, at the start of a covert invasion of the Portuguese colony.
Among them is one man who says he saw two of the journalists after they were captured alive, and then saw them executed by the Indonesians.
A finding of deliberate targeting and execution would bring calls for war crimes cases against the Indonesians involved, some of whom later rose to senior positions - notably the officer in charge of the Balibo attack, Yunus Yosfiah, who became Indonesia's minister of information in 1998.
As delicate for Ms Pinch is the handling of requests from Mr Lewis and the NSW Police for access to personnel and records of the Defence Signals Directorate, Australia's electronic spy agency, for what might have been learned about the Balibo killings from intercepted Indonesian signals.
Even after three decades, the directorate is claiming immunity on national security grounds from disclosing such material or names in open court.
A legal team from the NSW Crown Solicitor's office, headed by the barrister Mark Tedeschi, QC, is being given conditional access to directorate material to assess its relevance.
Mrs Tolfree became guardian to Peters and his two younger brothers at the age of 15 when their mother deserted them.
When Peters decided to migrate to Australia at 19, under a £20 scheme run by the Big Brother movement, she signed the consent forms.
By the time he died, aged 26, she had three children of her own and the two younger brothers to look after.
As pressures eased in later years, she took more time off from her catering work to seek answers about his death. She also joined protests against the Indonesian military, which was being supplied with jets from the British Aerospace factory near her home.
She is not surprised the Defence Department is still trying to shield its knowledge from open scrutiny. "They're going to try, aren't they?" Mrs Tolfree said. "They're not going to open up. They've got a lot to hide."
Indonesians 'killed, dressed Balibo journos'
By Hamish McDonald
February 5, 2007 - 2:12PM
Invading Indonesian soldiers shot dead five Australian-based journalists as they attempted to surrender at the town of Balibo in East Timor in 1975, the opening of an inquest in Sydney heard today.
Mark Tedeschi, QC, the counsel assisting the coroner, said witnesses would tell the inquest that the bodies of three of the journalists were then dressed in Portuguese army uniforms and photographed behind machine guns as if they had been fighters.
He said the journalists had called out to the Indonesians that they were Australian and had been clearly identifiable as newsmen by their equipment.
However, the leader of the Indonesian force that reached Balibo, then Captain Yunus Yosfiah, opened fire and ordered his troops to shoot without any attempt to talk with the Australians, Mr Tedeschi said.
Some were then dressed as Portuguese soldiers.
"In this macabre falsification of evidence, he (Captain Yunus) tried to suggest the journalists were combatants,''
Captain Yunus, who became Indonesia's Minister for Information in 1998, had not responded to invitations to appear at the inquest, nor have any other Indonesian agencies or individuals, he said.
In other sensational allegations in his opening statement, Mr Tedischi said the Australian spy agency, the Defence Signals Directorate, had intercepted Indonesian military messages before the attack indicating an awareness that journalists were present in and around Balibo.
He suggested a possible motive for eliminating the five was to prevent a public outcry in Australia that might have undermined the then Whitlam Government's tacit approval of the Indonesian covert invasion of the Portuguese colony.
The inquest is being held into the death of one of the Balibo Five, British-born Brian Peters, 26, a Channel Nine cameraman.
The inquest before Deputy State Coroner Dorelle Pinch is expected to run for at least a month.
The hearing by a NSW court into the death of a British citizen in a foreign country is a legal milestone for Australia.
It is the first independent inquiry of a judicial nature into the Balibo Five case to have powers to compel witnesses.
Among the 66 listed witnesses are a dozen Timorese who were auxiliaries with the Indonesian special forces team that attacked Balibo on October 16, 1975, at the start of the invasion.
Back to February menu