Subject: NT connection could solve 32-year-old Balibo mystery

Northern Territory News (Australia)

February 24, 2007


NT connection could solve a 32-year-old mystery

A MYSTERY Northern Territory intelligence officer from the 1970s could finally prove whether our federal government -- which has always claimed ignorance -- knew five Australian journalists were executed by Indonesian forces in East Timor in 1975. PAUL MULVEY reports

THREE decades on, Shirley Shackleton still wakes in fright, sitting bolt upright in bed as she relives the moment she sensed her husband had been killed.

It's a recurring, but now rare, nightmare.

Although it may linger a while yet, Ms Shackleton has finally found some comfort in the first open and independent inquest into the deaths of Channel 7 journalist Greg Shackleton and four other Australian-based newsmen in East Timor in 1975.

Successive Australian governments have maintained the men, known as the Balibo Five, were accidentally killed in crossfire on October 16, 1975.

However, a mystery NT intelligence officer from the 1970s could prove that the then government knew the five were, in fact, executed by Indonesian forces.

But, despite extensive inquiries and searches, nobody knows where he is.

The mystery man showed an 18-month-old intercepted wire to two top-level government officials at the Defence Signals Directorate at Shoal Bay near Darwin in 1977, but was not identified at the time and has not been heard of since.

Two Commonwealth officials, George Brownbill and Ian Cunliffe, this week told the inquest the intercept indicated the federal government knew the men were killed on orders from Indonesian commanders.

Ms Shackleton and other campaigners have long sought to prove they were murdered by the Indonesian military during its invasion of East Timor and the Australian Government had covered it up. Their claims have been supported by East Timorese eye-witnesses who have told an inquest into one of the men's deaths, Channel 9 cameraman Brian Peters, that Indonesian soldiers shot or stabbed the men and then burnt their bodies.

On Thursday this week, the Balibo Five families enjoyed the breakthrough for which they had waited nearly 32 years.

The inquest was told the Australian government had lied.

It was told successive governments, starting with that of then prime minister Gough Whitlam, had covered up details of the deaths for the sake of protecting Australia's intelligence service and relationship with Indonesia.

Ms Shackleton said it was the best breakthrough they had had since 1975.

''Yes, I've been waiting 32 years for this. This vindicates the fact people here have never given up,'' she said.

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Government lied: witness

From Page 19

''It's wonderful, that's why this inquest is already a success.''

Ms Shackleton gasped when former high ranking government officer Ian Cunliffe said a communication between Indonesian forces, which was intercepted by Australian intelligence, indicated the men were shot on orders.

She caught her breath again when Mr Cunliffe told the court that, having been shown the wire in 1977, he ''had been made privy to something which suggested the Australian government had basically been lying''.

The brother, sister and son of Channel 7 cameraman Gary Cunningham also sat up in their seats at Glebe Coroner's Court when they heard Mr Cunliffe's evidence.

It was what they and hundreds of other activists had been saying through decades of rejection and dismissal of their claims.

Ms Shackleton said she had received just one phone call from the Australian Government, and that was to tell her it would cost $48,000 to bring the remains of her husband and his colleagues home. She and the other families had to endure the indignity of staying in Australia while their loved ones were buried in what she calls a ''bogus funeral'' in Jakarta.

She questions why, for a start, the remains were taken from the border town of Balibo in East Timor to Jakarta.

She also wants to know who gave them to the Indonesians.

And she will forever hold a grudge against Australia's ambassador to Jakarta at the time, Richard Woolcott, who she says orchestrated the funeral in which the remains of all five men were put in one small coffin.

''I don't think there's anything in that grave. It was all show,'' she said. ''It was a token ... an absolutely cynical exercise. I was suspicious from the start. Why wouldn't the government want us to go to the funeral?''

The families were dealt another blow when two reports by a former Australian government solicitor Tom Sherman, in 1996 and 1999, concluded that Mr Shackleton, Mr Peters, Mr Cunningham, Malcolm Rennie and Tony Stewart were killed in crossfire.

Mr Cunliffe agreed this week with the families' long-held view that the Sherman reports were a ''whitewash''.

Despite the repeated setbacks, Ms Shackleton and the others remained determined to uncover the truth. She even confronted Indonesian invasion commander General Benny Murdani when they crossed paths in Dili years later, demanding to know ''what happened to my husband?''

She's afraid of what she might do if she met Mr Whitlam, though.

''I'd knacker him,'' she said.

The first glimpse of good news came late last year, when NSW coroner John Abernethy found a loophole to initiate the inquest, the very existence of which Ms Shackleton believes is a victory in itself.

''It's a triumph for the judiciary, for the families, for all the wonderful activists who have worked all those years,'' she said.

''And for human rights in Australia. Because, do you want to live in a country where successive governments for 32 years have lied to protect the murderers of Australian citizens, young men who weren't even 30?

''You don't want to have that going on. They got away with murder. It already makes me feel good, this inquest, because it means the chickens have come home to roost.

''It seems to me that proper respect is being given to these journalists now and they deserve it. I knew it would be brushed under the carpet because the lies started on day one. But I always knew it would come to pass, I would live to see something being done.''

As for Mr Woolcott and the government figures labelled by Balibo Five supporters as the Jakarta Lobby -- which includes Mr Whitlam -- Ms Shackleton says history has finally caught up with them.

''History will judge them harshly,'' she said ''They'll be seen for what they are -- liars.

''If they said nothing on Timor, it would have been better than what they did do. If they had said absolutely nothing on the journalists, it would have been better than what they did do.

''Prime ministers, highly-placed officials in foreign affairs, diplomats, they're all tarred with this same horrible disgrace.

''Murder is murder and if you tell lies about murder, it'll come back and bite you on the bum and that's what's happening here.''

But there was hope, Ms Shackleton says, as the brave East Timorese witnesses who were forced to fight their countrymen in 1975 showed by giving stirring evidence against the Indonesians.

''If you show you've got a conscience, you can be redeemed, Mr Whitlam,'' she said.

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