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5 Senior Indonesian Officers  on Trial - 2002-03-19

Five senior Indonesian military officers went on trial Tuesday for their involvement in violence in East Timor surrounding the territory's 1999 referendum on independence from Indonesia. Some of the military's top brass attended the opening in what they said was a show of support for the accused.

A prosecutor reads charges against the first military officers accused of taking part in the violence in East Timor. Five officers, including a colonel, were charged with failing to control groups of anti-independence militiamen who attacked a church in the East Timorese town of Suai, in September 1999.

At least 27 people were killed in the attack, including three priests. Human rights groups consider the attack on the church in Suai one of the most brazen acts of violence carried out by militia groups.

Altogether, 18 officials and militia members have been accused of crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in the killings and destruction that wracked East Timor in the days surrounding its 1999 vote for independence. Seven of them have been formally indicted.

Tuesday's proceedings mark the resumption of Indonesia's landmark human rights trials that opened last week. The special tribunal was formed specifically to hear allegations of human rights abuses carried out with the tacit support of the Indonesian authorities.

Last week, the court heard opening arguments in two trials involving East Timor's former governor and a police general. On Tuesday, some of the military's top brass were on hand to show support to the first military officers put on trial.

Admiral Adi Sujipto Widodo is the head of the Indonesian Armed Forces. He says "the attendance of military leadership is to show support. They are giving moral support, support to the defense team and other types of support such as to the defendants and their families," Adm. Widodo said.

The admiral also says "the military leadership's attendance at the tribunal today demonstrates its resolve to respect the rule of law and to allow justice to take its course," Widodo said.

Human rights advocates say hundreds of people died at the hands of armed militiamen, who, the rights groups say, had the support of elements of the Indonesian Armed Forces. The militias were fighting for East Timor to remain a part of Indonesia and launched a campaign of terror when the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence.

So far, the defendants in today's case have not entered their pleas. The trial will resume next week, when the defense team will make its first argument.

Despite the trials, some human rights groups are pushing for an international human rights tribunal to be formed for East Timor. They say the mandate of this court is too narrow to allow real justice to be done.