|Subject: Hamish McDonald - Killing of
newsmen in Timor ruled a war crime
also Balibo Five share some blame: coroner The Sydney Morning Herald
Killing of newsmen in Timor ruled a war crime
November 17, 2007
AFTER 32 years of secrecy, the killing of the Balibo Five newsmen has been branded a war crime, and Australia may launch prosecutions against the Indonesian soldiers involved.
The explosive findings yesterday by the Deputy State Coroner Dorelle Pinch - that the five were deliberately killed by special force soldiers after surrendering - will be referred to federal lawyers and police for war crime prosecutions.
The Australian Government could then find itself obliged to seek the extradition of at least two former Indonesian soldiers - including the retired army general and information minister Mohammad Yunus Yosfiah - for wilful killing of civilians, contrary to the Geneva Conventions.
The packed Glebe courtroom grew tense - and Maureen Tolfree, sister of one of the five, Brian Peters, sobbed - as Ms Pinch summed up how the newsmen died. "They were not armed; they were dressed in civilian clothes; all of them at one time or another had their hands raised in the universally recognised gesture of surrender; they were not killed in the heat of battle; they were killed deliberately on orders given by the field commander, Captain Yunus Yosfiah."
Ms Pinch said she would refer the matter to the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock. But Mr Ruddock said yesterday it was not up to him to launch prosecutions against alleged war criminals. "The Australian Federal Police is responsible for investigating war crimes and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions is responsible for prosecuting persons charged with contravening Commonwealth laws," Mr Ruddock said.
Prosecutions under the Geneva Conventions would be a first for Australian authorities, which used separate war crimes legislation for the post-1945 trials of Japanese offenders and more recent action against alleged Nazi fugitives.
It would be a test of political courage for Australian leaders, and on the Indonesian side there will be concern this is merely a prelude to further international prosecutions over Jakarta's 24-year occupation of East Timor during which numerous massacres and atrocities have been documented, or over its bloody withdrawal from the territory in 1999 for which it has conducted trials widely seen as token.
The Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, suggested a Labor government would allow war crimes prosecutions to proceed. "This is a very disturbing conclusion from the coroner," he said. "It may now be 32 years ago, but this is a matter of concern to all Australians, not just those in journalism, but everyone who is concerned about the proper reporting of events around the world.
"I believe this has to be taken through to its logical conclusion. I also believe that those responsible should be held to account."
The Prime Minister, John Howard, said yesterday he would take advice on the finding. "I take what she said seriously, it's a long time ago, it doesn't mean that the relatives of those people who died aren't entitled to have a proper response to the coroner's findings," he said.
Then-captain Yunus and another Indonesian special forces soldier, Christoforus da Silva, were the only two named participants in the killing of the five newsmen after they surrendered with their hands up in the village square of Balibo in the early morning of October 16, 1975.
Ms Pinch said Channel Nine cameraman Brian Peters was probably the first to fall, with colleague Malcolm Rennie and Channel Seven's Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart killed soon afterwards on the orders of Captain Yunus - to prevent news getting out of the Indonesian attack on then Portuguese Timor.
"There is strong circumstantial evidence that those orders emanated from the head of Indonesian Special Forces, Major-General Benny Murdani to Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, Special Forces Group Commander in Timor, and then to Captain Yunus," she found. Murdani and Kalbuadi are dead.
The bereaved families hailed the finding. John Milkins, the adopted-out son of Mr Cunningham, said the findings were immensely important and courageous. "It is the first step in what has been a very long journey," he said. "And the words 'war crimes' are going to echo in Australian history for quite some time. The Balibo Five have been an iconic piece of history in Australia and it will continue.."
In Jakarta, the findings were immediately dismissed as "Australia's internal process" by military spokesman Air Vice-Marshall Sagom Tamboen. "To us the case has been very clear and it is [a] closed case now," he said. "Their accusation is not proved. However if the Australian Government sees that as truth, the solution to the problem, I believe, lies between both governments."
Dino Pati Djalal, spokesman for the President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said "the book is closed on that", and would not be drawn on what would happen if Canberra pursued the findings. "But I believe the Australian Government is very careful in handling this issue," he said.
Balibo Five share some blame: coroner
Hamish McDonald Asia-Pacific Editor
November 17, 2007
IN THE blame game of Balibo, the state coronial inquest yesterday put responsibility onto the five journalist victims for refusing opportunities to escape their danger, and the Indonesian military for executing them.
Implicitly excused are Australian government departments, especially Foreign Affairs, which failed to put together a detailed advance brief about the Indonesian attack and the knowledge that some Australian reporters were "outside Dili" and might well be in the threatened border area. The question of any negligence by Canberra was ruled outside the parameters of the inquest before it started.
The Deputy State Coroner, Dorelle Pinch, said the five newsmen had had many warnings and the last, unsent letter of Nine cameraman Brian Peters, written hours before he was killed on October 16, 1975, showed a realisation of how exposed they were.
The two TV teams could have left with a Portuguese TV crew who went back to Maliana on October 15, or with some Fretilin defenders who pulled out of Balibo at 4.30am on October 16 as a preliminary bombardment started, or with the last Fretilin soldiers who fled at 6.45am.
They wanted to stay "un momento" longer to capture more images, Ms Pinch said. "They misjudged the timing. On the basis of the evidence before me, the journalists themselves bear the responsibility for being alone in Balibo at the time the Indonesian and Partisan military forces entered."
But in making their decision to stay and attempt to surrender, the Balibo Five did not factor in the Indonesian plan to kill them as witnesses to a covert operation whose exposure might force the then prime minister, Gough Whitlam, to oppose Indonesia's armed invasion.
"Outside the Indonesian military, no one in Australia or East Timor was aware of that plan either," she said. "I am aware that there has been speculation that government agencies in Australia had forewarning that the journalists were to be killed. All of the evidence before this inquest is to the contrary."
Ms Pinch also dismissed speculation that Australian governments had known the circumstances of the journalists' deaths since 1975 and that this information was contained in secret intelligence material.
"On all of the evidence before me, including the intelligence material, reports based on it and the evidence of those who saw or knew of it, there is nothing to indicate how the journalists were killed e.g. whether they were shot or stabbed, and whether they were killed deliberately or accidentally," she said.
"The sigint [signals intelligence, intercepted radio messages] material did confirm the evidence of eyewitnesses that the bodies were burnt," she said, but added that witness accounts and diplomatic reporting had given fuller details.
The then foreign minister, Don Willesee, had wanted to inform families immediately after he learned of the deaths from an intercept on October 17, but had been dissuaded by the then defence minister, Bill Morrison, and senior officials until "collateral" information came in the public domain and the identities of the dead were confirmed.
The responsibility for delay in confirming the identities of the journalists rested squarely on the Indonesian Government, she said. "The Indonesian military had recovered the documents, including some passports, of the journalists on the day they died and were in a position to provide confirmation of identity as soon as the Australian embassy made inquiries about the journalists."
Instead there was a cover-up, which included posing the bodies with captured uniforms and weapons, burning them to eradicate signs of how the deaths happened, orchestrating false accounts, misleading Australian investigators, and denying, up to now, Indonesian involvement.