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Court Sentences Militiamen in East Timor - 2001-12-11

A court in East Timor has sentenced 10 militiamen to up to 33 years in prison for crimes against humanity. This is the first trial for crimes against humanity in the new country.

Independent court monitors say the three-judge panel took three-and-a-half hours to read out its ruling and hand down the sentences at the Dili District Court, in the East Timorese capital.

The 10 defendants were members of the Team Alpha militia, an anti-independence militia that was fighting to keep East Timor part of Indonesia.

Seven were convicted of murdering three priests and two nuns in September 1999, who were holding a funeral for another victim of militia violence. An Indonesian journalist reporting on the funeral and a boy were also killed. They received sentences of 17-33 years in prison, the maximum penalty allowed.

Originally, 11 people were included in the indictment. But one of them, a member of the Indonesian armed forces, has not been located.

The other defendants received sentences of at least four years for their involvement in other murders, torture and the forcible deportation of people from East Timor to the neighboring Indonesian province of West Timor.

The verdict is significant, said Caitlin Reigers from the non-governmental organization Judicial System Monitoring Program, partly because of the difficulty in proving crimes against humanity. "Basically the test is that there have to have been a widespread or systematic campaign against a civilian population going on around it, and that's the context in which the crime themselves were committed. So the people who have committed the crimes can only be charged with crimes against humanity as opposed to just a murder if it can be shown that they actually knew that the crime they committing was part of the broader campaign," Reigers said.

Human rights groups say rampaging anti-independence militias killed hundreds of people and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes more in the weeks surrounding East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia in August 1999.

United Nations peacekeepers were deployed to the territory to restore calm. East Timor is under U.N. administration until it achieves full independence in May next year.