An Indonesian human rights court has handed down its first guilty verdict, convicting the former governor of East Timor of not preventing a bloody rampage through the territory in 1999.
With the bang of a gavel, a judge at Indonesia's special human rights tribunal closes the trial of Jose Abilio Soares.
The five-judge panel convicted East Timor's former governor of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to three years in prison. He was accused of not preventing his subordinates from carrying out acts of violence. Among the incidents Soares has been held responsible for is the massacre of several people taking shelter at a church.
Soares is the first Indonesian official to be convicted in a human rights case. Altogether, Indonesia has named 18 people as suspects in human rights cases related to East Timor. Soares reacted angrily to his conviction. He says the government changed his role in East Timor in May 1999 when Jakarta agreed to let the territory hold an independence referendum. He said that after the May agreement, authority over East Timor rested with the regional and central governments not the local authorities he represented.
Soares said he plans to appeal the verdict.
Prosecutors had sought a prison term of 10 and a half years.
In the months leading up to the August 1999 referendum, East Timor was rocked by violence carried out by anti-independence militias. Human rights groups say Indonesian military and government leaders orchestrated the activity. The violence climaxed when the majority of East Timorese voted to break free from Indonesia. Roughly 1,000 people died in the rampage, while hundreds of thousands were forced to flee East Timor. Indonesia formed a special human rights tribunal earlier this year, in response to pressure from the international community. East Timorese and international human rights groups have severely criticized the court and Indonesia's legal system. They say justice will not be served until Indonesia indicts more of the senior military officers thought to have been involved in planning the militia violence. They also say the court's mandate does not fully cover the scope of destruction that took place in East Timor.