The long-delayed trial of Indonesian military officers accused of human rights abuses in East Timor is expected to begin soon now that Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri has approved a panel of judges. Observers are hoping the tribunal will hold the Indonesian military accountable for its actions and end what has been described as a climate of impunity.
In the weeks leading up to and following East Timor's vote for independence in August 1999, pro-Jakarta militias backed by the Indonesian army went on a rampage through the territory. Hundreds of East Timorese were killed and more than 200,000 people were forced into refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor. Towns were burned and much of the territory's infrastructure was destroyed.
The military's suspected involvement reinforced the widely held impression that Indonesia's army is not accountable for its actions. U.S. ambassador to Jakarta Ralph Boyce says that apparent lack of accountability is a major concern in Washington.
"It - not just in Timor but elsewhere in Indonesia - is in many ways one of the key concerns that a lot of friends of Indonesia have about addressing the sort of notion that there's a climate of impunity and that people don't get punished for outrageous acts. The Indonesians, I think, also recognize that," Mr. Boyce said.
Indonesia promised to bring the perpetrators of the East Timor violence to justice, but Jakarta rejected calls for an international tribunal.
In September 2000, Indonesian prosecutors charged 19 people - including three army generals, a police general and several middle-ranking officers -with responsibility for the atrocities and devastation in East Timor. The start of their trial was postponed last year because President Megawati had not approved a panel of judges. Her January 12 decree approving the judges paves the way for the tribunal to proceed.
Ambassador Boyce says the human rights court will provide a clue about whether the atmosphere of impunity continues in Indonesia.
"That is going to be, I think, an early indicator - when that body [tribunal] gets going and people are brought into the dock and people actually get convicted, and that has yet to happen," he said.
The head of a non-governmental organization that promotes reconstruction in East Timor has said President Megawati's decision to proceed with the human rights tribunal is a tremendous step forward and indicates her commitment to deal with human rights abuses. Lelei Lelaulu is president of Counterpart International in Washington.
"Real justice is a difficult thing to quantify, but it certainly signals a very clear willingness of the Indonesian authorities to be active on the question of human rights abuses. It means a general or an officer faced with the situation of whether to abuse or not to abuse will have at the back of his or her mind the fact that they could be up for legal action in Jakarta or somewhere else in Indonesia at some point in time. It makes them accountable," he said. The Washington director of Human Rights Watch, Mike Jendrzejczyk, agrees that convening the human rights trials is a positive step. But he says Indonesia has a long way to go before there is real justice for the crimes committed in East Timor. For example, he notes that the indictments do not include General Wiranto, the former chief of the Indonesian army, or other top military generals.
The army traditionally has had a powerful role in Indonesian politics and its economy. And Mr. Jendrzejczyk says real justice requires President Megawati to reform the military and bring it completely under civilian control. He says President Megawati is engaged in a delicate balancing act because the military supported her bid to become president and now is counting on her to protect their interests.
"What we need to see now is the kind of political will necessary to bring to trial the most senior officials, including former generals responsible not only for the atrocities in East Timor but also serious abuses including recent murders and killings in Aceh, West Papua and elsewhere in Indonesia," he said.
Mr. Jendrzejczyk has said President Megawati is under serious pressure from the United States and other donor countries who are reluctant to give her government the support it needs until there is an independent judiciary and some accountability for those who commit abuses.
"The most recent foreign aid bill just enacted by Congress includes very clear human rights conditions, especially accountability, before the administration can go ahead with resumption of IMET, that is international military training and education programs, and sales of some weapons and arms supplies that have been cut off since 1999," he said.
Mr. Jendrzejczyk believes that pressure from Washington and other world capitals was an important factor in convincing President Megawati to move forward with naming judges to the human rights tribunal.