Subject: NZ must act on Balibo deaths: activists

NZ must act on Balibo deaths: activists


February 12, 2010 - 6:04PM


The New Zealand government has been criticised for its "appalling" failure to hold Indonesia to account over the Balibo Five killings in East Timor.

New Zealander Gary Cunningham and other Australian-based newsmen Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart were shot dead at Balibo, East Timor, in October 1975.

A memorial to Cunningham was announced at a ceremony in Wellington on Friday.

The Australian Federal Police launched a war crimes investigation into the killings last year, following a 2007 coronial inquest which found Indonesian forces deliberately killed the Australian-based journalists to cover up their 1975 invasion of East Timor.

Retired Indonesian army colonel Gatot Purwanto appeared to back the coroner's findings in December last year, becoming the first senior Indonesian figure to contradict the official explanation the newsmen were killed in crossfire.

The planned memorial in Wellington, organised by the Indonesia Human Rights Committee with support from the Media Freedom Committee and Wellington City Council, would be the first official commemoration in New Zealand.

Maire Leadbeater, of the Indonesia Human Rights Committee, said Cunningham was a "true hero".

"As far as East Timor is concerned he's a martyr. I think he's the truest and best sort of hero, because he was someone who took his life in his own hands, potentially to save the lives of others."

It was "appalling" the New Zealand government had not been more outspoken, she said.

"It's now nearly 35 years since Gary died, but this is the story that won't die until justice and accountability is really achieved for the Balibo Five."

Leadbeater was among those gathered for the memorial announcement on Wellington's Mt Victoria, the planned site for the memorial overlooking views across the city where Cunningham grew up.

Many were to attend Friday night's Wellington premiere of Balibo, the Australian film about the killings that has been banned in Indonesia.

Leadbeater said she hoped the Balibo film would raise public awareness of the killings.

"I think there's going to be a groundswell of public pressure here, as there has been in Indonesia and Australia, for action for the Balibo Five."

Cunningham's aunt, Pat McGregor, said the memorial was a "very important" step towards the New Zealand government taking action over the killings.

"At the time it all happened we couldn't even get the government to look for them, so yes, this is a little bit of completing the circle for us," she told NZPA.

She called on the New Zealand government to become involved in the Australian war crimes probe.

"I would like to think that the government would at least, whatever the findings, acknowledge that it did all happen."

Tim Pankhurst, chief executive of the Newspaper Publishers' Association, which is the secretariat for the Media Freedom Committee, said it was "shameful" that successive New Zealand governments had refused to engage on the issue.

"This government recognises that a fundamental tenet of a democracy is freedom of speech. Well, you need to back that up with supporting your citizens," he said.

"Gary was a Kiwi, and I think it's marvellous that he's being remembered in this way, and more power to the mayor for supporting it. But you notice who was absent from that ceremony? Any government official."

The government should "at the very least" pursue justice over the killings, Pankhurst said.

"The outcome needs to be that the Indonesians responsible should be held to account, and that there should be recompense for the families."

NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully said in December the government was watching developments in the Australian war crimes investigation, but New Zealand would not hold its own inquiry.

He had raised the matter with the Indonesian government on a visit last year but had not sought an apology and admission.

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