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East Timor Militia Leader Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison

An East Timor human rights court has sentenced a senior member of a pro-Indonesia militia to 15 years in jail for violence before East Timor's 1999 vote for independence. The sentence is a victory for prosecutors, who are wrapping up their work in East Timor.

The human rights court in Dili gave Marculino Soares 15 years in prison.

It is one of the heaviest penalties awarded by the United Nations East Timor Serious Crimes Panel, which was created to try the perpetrators of the violence surrounding the August 1999 vote for independence from Indonesia.

In 1999, Soares was the leader of a pro-Indonesia militia group based near Dili. He was convicted of organizing and participating an attack on the house of pro-independence leader Manuel Carrascalao, which left 12 people dead.

Some 1,500 people died and hundreds of thousands fled East Timor as some of Indonesia's security forces and their proxies in the militias tried to terrify the population into voting to remain part of Indonesia.

Nick Koumjian heads the U.N. Serious Crimes Unit. He says the unit has ceased its investigations this week and will close down entirely next year.

"The Security Council in its resolution passed last May instructed the Unit to complete all its investigations by the end of November," he said. "So we have just completed all investigations. The teams have drafted some additional indictments, which are now being reviewed. They are under my review and they will be issued before the end of the year."

The Serious Crimes Unit was only able to investigate about half the 1500 deaths before being shut down. But Mr. Koumjian says that the United Nations and the East Timorese government are looking into other mechanisms to bring justice after the unit ceases operations.

Most of the major suspects responsible for the violence in East Timor escaped to Indonesia, where they have proved to be beyond the law.

Indonesia did set up its own human rights courts to try people for the carnage. But of the 18 people it put on trial - including some senior members of the military - only one conviction stands, and that is expected to be overturned on appeal.