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East Timor Militia Leader Aquitted by Indonesia's Supreme Court

Indonesia's Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a former pro-Jakarta militia leader, ruling that he did not commit gross human rights violations during East Timor's vote for independence in 1999. Marianne Kearney has more from Jakarta.

Eurico Guterres, the leader of the Aitarak (Thorn) militia, was given a ten-year sentence for his role in attacks on pro-independence supporters in East Timor in 1999. During one famous attack on the house of a former governor, Guterres and his men killed at least 12 people, including the former governor's son. The attack was witnessed by dozens of survivors, and documented in independent investigations.

But on Friday, the Supreme Court announced that it has squashed that conviction. It said it has new evidence to prove that the militia leader, Eurico Guterres, did not lead the attacks.

The Court's decision means that not a single military or police chief, or militia member has been found guilty of human rights violations in East Timor by the Indonesian legal system.

The court decision came despite an earlier Supreme Court ruling that upheld Guterres' conviction by an ad-hoc human rights court.

The ad-hoc court was specially convened after the United Nations threatened to set up an international human rights tribunal to try individuals accused on involvement in months of deadly violence before and after the country's vote for independence in 1999.

At least 1,400 people were killed, and around 70 percent of the country's infrastructure was destroyed by military backed militia groups.

Usman Hamid, from the rights group Kontras, criticized the ruling, saying it sends a message that human rights violators will be given impunity in Indonesia's courts.

"It is a bad sign, it is a very disappointing decision that can bring no hopes for many victims of past human rights abuses, that is currently pursuing justice and accountability for past human rights abuses in many places in Indonesia," he said.

Apart from Guterres, the ad-hoc human rights court tried 18 suspects, including police and military chiefs, and East Timorese civilians in 2001. However only a handful were convicted, and these rulings were later overturned by a higher court.

Guterres has served just under two years of the ten-year sentence. A court judge said he is expected to be freed next week.

The judge said that Guterres was found not guilty, because he did not have structural command of the militia, and therefore could not have the led attacks.

East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, was invaded by Indonesia in 1975.