East Timor's transitional administration has sworn in a commission to investigate decades of abuses. East Timorese leaders hope the commission will bring healing as the territory prepares for full independence in May.
Seven respected East Timorese took the oath of office in Dili Monday and formally launched the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation.
The commission will look into abuses committed in East Timor from the time it was a Portuguese colony, through 25 years of Indonesian rule and during the violence-laced vote for independence almost three years ago.
The U.N. coordinator of the commission, Pat Walsh, told VOA by telephone that the body is similar in many ways to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that examined abuses during the apartheid era. But he said East Timor's commission differs in some important ways. "The Timorese Commission will not grant amnesty and, secondly, it will not consider serious crimes," he said. "It will not consider crimes against humanity or war crimes, rape, murder, mass violence, or organization of those sort of criminal activities."
Mr. Walsh says such crimes will automatically be referred to the courts for legal action. The commission's main task will be to focus on less serious individual acts of violence against people and property.
The commission aims to facilitate reconciliation at the grassroots level, bringing victims and perpetrators together to determine what compensation is needed to atone for the transgression. Mr. Walsh says when the perpetrators have fulfilled the punishment, they will be forgiven and accepted back into their communities.
Much of the commission's work will probe the violence that surrounded the 1999 U.N. sponsored vote for East Timorese independence.
An estimated 1,000 people were killed in a wave of looting and destruction by Indonesia-backed militias. Human rights workers say virtually the entire population lost family members or homes or jobs during this period.
Pat Walsh says the commission hopes its work will encourage the return of an estimated 70,000 refugees who still remain in neighboring Indonesia due to fear of reprisals back at home. "We hope that it will be an incentive not only to return, but to engage with the Commission and to settle these issues which have potential here to trouble relationships at the local level for generations," said Mr. Walsh.
Mr. Walsh says he hopes East Timor's commission will provide some closure and allow people to turn their attention to bigger issues, like reconstruction and the development of democratic institutions. The commission expects to begin holding large-scale public hearings after independence on May 20.
Meanwhile, the government of Indonesia, under international pressure, has appointed a tribunal to investigate residents of Indonesia who are accused of human rights violations during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Human rights organizations are pressuring Jakarta to conduct full and open hearings, particularly on charges that senior Indonesian military officers at the time were behind some of the abuses in East Timor.