||US court weighs case of officer in Indonesian killings
Mother, reporter tell of massacre of 271
By Randolph Ryan, Globe Staff
Memories of a 1991 massacre by Indonesian soldiers brought emotional testimony yesterday in US District Court in Boston, where a judge is weighing compensatory and punitive damages against the Indonesian commanding general whose troops killed hundreds of unarmed marchers in Dili, the capital of East Timor.
The attack on Nov. 12, 1991, in which an estimated 271 marchers were mowed down at a funeral procession was vividly described by Allan Nairn, a US journalist who suffered a fractured skull while witnessing the shooting.
"I didn't think they would stage a massacre in front of us," Nairn said. "At first I thought they were firing blanks. I couldn't believe they were going through with this. Then I saw blood and people falling."
The court also heard testimony from Constancio Pinto, a Timorese student now attending Brown University in Providence, who had helped organize the 1991 march; and from Helen Todd, the mother of Kamal Bamadhaj, a 19-year-old student with Malaysian and New Zealand citizenship. Bamadhaj died after he was shot by Indonesian troops and was denied medical assistance.
The evidentiary hearing took place in Boston because Gen. Sintong Panjaitan, who commanded the troops in the Dili massacre, was served papers in 1992 after he came to enroll in Harvard Business School. A default judgment was entered against him in February 1993. Panjaitan now serves as an adviser to Indonesia's minster of industry and technology, Nairn said.
With next month's Asian economic summit in Jakarta approaching, the case is a potential embarrassment to the Indonesian government. East Timor was invaded by Indonesia soon after it won independence from Portugal in December 1975. The occupation, which human rights observers say has killed roughly a third of the original Timorese population - more lives than the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia in the 1970s - has also been embarrassment to US policy makers, in part because the United States has sponsored the Indonesian regime.
The United Nations has condemned the invasion and considers East Timor to be a non-self-governing territory under foreign occupation, but Indonesia has stonewalled the international criticism.
Nairn, who has specialized in foreign affairs and received several awards for his reporting on East Timor, said he first visited the area in 1990. "I have never actually seen a place where the level of terror was so all-encompassing," he said.
Nairn said that in 1991, as Timorese citizens prepared testimony for a visit by a UN-Portuguese observer delegation, the Indonesian government intensified repression and issued explicit warnings that persons who spoke to foreign visitors would be executed en masse. In late October 1991, the UN observers' visit was canceled. Indonesian troops then stormed the Motael Catholic Church in Dili, which had become a sanctuary for protestors, and a man was executed. Two weeks later, after a commemorative Mass for the victim, troops opened fire in what Nairn described as "an orderly, systematic killing operation." The death toll was estimated at 271.
Nairn and another US reporter were attacked by soldiers swinging rifles. "They were shouting, 'Politik! Politik!'," which is a crime, he said. "We were shouting, 'America! America!' Finally they stopped hitting us."
Todd said her son, a student at the University of New South Wales in Australia, had been visiting East Timor as translator and human rights observer. He was shot in the arm during the initial fusillade, and later in the chest by an army patrol, she said. Troops prevented an International Red Cross jeep from taking him to a hospital. Todd, who lives in Malaysia, choked back tears as she concluded her testimony. "I'm the only plaitiff because I'm the only one of 271 families that can bring this case without endangering my other children," she said.
The case was brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights as an "international tort," a precedent-setting technique for pursuing international human rights violators. Judge Patti Saris said she would set damages within a few days.