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East Timorese Struggle to Find Justice for Rights Abuses - 2002-05-31

The international community helped East Timor win independence in part because of the alleged human rights abuses inflicted on its people during Indonesia's 24-year occupation of the country. Despite investigations into abuses surrounding East Timor's independence vote, the question remains whether justice will ever be fully served.

Groups of young East Timorese men take to the streets to defend their homes in September 1999. They are independence supporters and this street battle came a few days after East Timor voted overwhelmingly, in a United Nations-supervised ballot, to break free from Indonesia.

Within a few days, most of the men had fled to the mountains to escape pro-Indonesia militias. Others were not as lucky, and were among the hundreds of people the militias killed in a two-week rampage.

Almost three years later, the East Timorese are struggling to come to terms with abuses they say they suffered at the hands of the Indonesian military. Both East Timor and Indonesia are investigating the violence and allegations that elements of the Indonesian Armed Forces helped plan the militia rampage.

Prosecutors from the United Nations Serious Crimes unit, which oversees the East Timor human rights investigation, have issued 35 indictments. They won the first case of crimes against humanity, convicting 10 men on charges that included the massacre of a group of clergy.

That victory comes after much criticism of the unit. Human rights groups said it lacked the support to carry out investigations by UNTAET, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in East Timor. U.N. Prosecutor Stuart Alford says that situation has changed. "There was a distance between UNTAET and [the] Serious Crimes unit before, which led to a lack of U.N. resources being put to it, physical resources in some cases, in terms of vehicles, of well-qualified staff, and also assistance diplomatically and politically trying to get the job done within East Timor…. So I think that was a major improvement to see Serious Crimes rise up the political agenda for UNTAET," he says

After much delay, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri earlier this year pushed through the formation of a special ad-hoc human rights court to hear East Timor cases.

But Indonesia's human rights court also has come under fire. Human rights groups say Jakarta has only indicted low-ranking officials and none of the military top brass. They also say the court's mandate does not cover all of the violence.

A think tank, the International Crisis Group, or ICG, says the indictments against the Indonesian suspects are "sloppy" and the court trivializes the issue of crimes against humanity.

Sidney Jones is with the ICG in Jakarta. "I think there are a lot of signs that these trials are designed to obscure rather than reveal the truth. … I think there probably will be some people convicted," she says. "But the mandate of the court is so limited and the indictments are so appallingly weak that there's no way the full role of the Indonesian government is going to be revealed."

East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao says eradicating poverty is more important to him than the demand for justice.

Not all East Timorese agree with him. Yayasan Hak is East Timor's largest human rights group. Its leaders want an international rights tribunal to be formed, because they think both the Indonesian and East Timorese investigations are inadequate.

Joaquim Fonseca is with Yayasan Hak. "There is no culture in Indonesia to hold the top leaders accountable," he says. "So the ad hoc tribunal won't do that. And the Serious Crimes unit here, even if it can be made effective, it would not have the jurisdiction over the most responsible ones, who are in Indonesia."

Yayasan Hak is also backing the Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a group formed to help East Timor communities deal with residents who committed minor abuses such as looting and the destruction of property. The goal is to let ordinary people decide on punishment for offenders, so that they eventually can be welcomed back into the community.

Mr. Fonseca says there are signs such an approach can help, as some former militia men have come back to face their neighbors. "They have committed wrongdoings, but they came back to their community, and said, "Let's talk." We acknowledge that we have done this, this, this and this and we are ready to go to answer in the court. But we are still part of the same community. That is the best example ever," he says.

So far, no dates have been set for the first hearings of the Truth Commission. But perhaps it will give the East Timorese the closure they need, if the legal process fail them.