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E. Timor Seeks Justice for Victims of Anti-Independence Violence


Almost two years ago anti-independence militias in East Timor murdered hundreds of people during a two week rampage of terror. Now the East Timorese want justice. Two separate investigations are underway: one run by the United Nations and the other by the Indonesian government. But both have been criticized as being ineffective.

A United Nations prosecutor makes his closing argument in a murder case before the U.N. Panel on Serious Crimes in East Timor. "It is common ground that Manuel de Oliveira did die on 31 of August 1999," he says.

The defendant in the case is Augustino da Costa, a member of one of the handful of the Indonesian military-backed militias, which carried out the 1999 campaign of terror across East Timor that claimed some 800 hundred lives. Da Costa has already admitted to murdering U.N. staffer Manuel de Oliveira the day after East Timor voted overwhelming for independence from Indonesia.

But da Costa insists he was forced to kill by members of the Indonesian military - who threatened his family if he refused to comply. His U.N. appointed lawyer argues his client should get a light sentence.

"What we should be trying to do instead is to establish the circumstances of the killing," says the defense attorney.

Whether justice will be fully achieved in East Timor is a question of unraveling two intertwined investigations.

One is being conducted by the U.N. Serious Crimes unit, which gathers evidence for cases to be heard by an East Timorese and international panel in a Dili district court. The Indonesian government is conducting the other.

But human rights groups and non-governmental organizations in East Timor are critical of the U.N. investigation. Joaquim Fonseca is from the East Timorese human rights group Yayasan Hak. "The Serious Crimes Unit in East Timor is also suffering a lack of political support both from the East Timorese leadership as well as from the U.N. Transitional Authority," he explains.

But the U.N. chief of the Serious Crimes investigation, Oyvind Olsen, says the East Timor investigations are actually moving along quite quickly. "If you compare our set-up with other set-ups like Rwanda tribunal, the Yugoslavia tribunal, we are accomplishing a lot of work," he says. " We have been able to deliver up to date, 26 indictments, which implicates 46 accused."

But critics argue that the cases to date are ignoring the larger question of responsibility and what role senior Indonesian military officers played in orchestrating the militia violence.

Indonesian human rights investigators named 23 suspects of human rights violations, but the list included no high ranking military officers.

Furthermore, the East Timor have been disappointed with the results of the two trials the Indonesian government has pushed through the courts so far.

Notorious militia-leader Eurico Guterres was sentenced to just six months on the relatively minor charge of obstructing police work. And militiamen who murdered three U.N. humanitarian workers in the West Timor town of Atambua in September 1999 were only given 10 and 20 month prison terms.

East Timor's acting foreign minister, Jose Ramos Horta, says given the lack of progress in the Indonesian investigation, the United Nations needs to organize an international war crimes tribunal.

"It's has been almost two years. Not one single military officer has been put on trial. So how can we trust them? " he asks.

But for now there is no indication that the U.N. Security Council will authorize a war crimes tribunal for East Timor. Back in the Dili district court, two weeks after the closing arguments were made, the three-judge panel sentenced Augustino da Costa to 15 years in prison. But many East Timorese view the conviction of da Costa merely as a token gesture, while those responsible for the worst of the bloodshed in East Timor continue to escape prosecution.

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