Subject: Watchdog slams freeing of East Timor militia leader

Watchdog slams freeing of East Timor militia leader

Reuters - Saturday, June 21

DILI - East Timor's recent decision to pardon and release a former militia leader responsible for several murders has undermined the country's human rights commitment, a local watchdog said on Friday.

Joni Marques, who led the Alfa militia group in East Timor, was sentenced in 2001 to 33 years and four months in prison for an attack in 1999 on a convoy of nuns and priests in which several people were killed.

Several militia groups were active in East Timor in the late 1990s when residents were given a chance to vote for independence from Indonesia, which had invaded the tiny former Portuguese colony in 1975.

Pro-Indonesia militiamen went on a violent rampage before and after the U.N.-sponsored vote that ended 24 years of Jakarta's rule.

Marques walked free last week following a Dili court parole grant. He was one of several prisoners, including other militia members, to receive a presidential pardon on May 20.

"The freedom of such perpetrators may bring into question East Timor's international human rights commitments," said Timotio de Deus, head of local watchdog Judicial System Monitoring Programme.

"However laudable in spirit, attempts to move on from the country's legacy of violence must not outweigh the rule of law," he added.

"We are sad with the leaders' decision. We want them to stay in jail, they must pay for what they have done in the past," said Martinho Soares, a relative of one of the victims.

The United Nations estimates about 1,000 East Timorese were killed in the rampage before and after the territory voted.

The Commission of Truth and Friendship , which was set up by Indonesia and East Timor to promote reconciliation between the two neighbours, is tasked to find and acknowledge perpetrators during the violent period.

Many have seen the commission as toothless as it doesn't have power to prosecute anyone.

The commission recently said it has finalised its report on those responsible for the 1999 violence and will submit it to the presidents of both countries soon, but has not yet given a date.

Predominantly Catholic East Timor became fully independent in May 2002 after 2- years of U.N. administration.

(Reporting by Tito Belo; Writing by Olivia Rondonuwu; Editing by Sara Webb)

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