United Nations officials in East Timor have indicted 17 people suspected of committing crimes against humanity in the days surrounding the territory's vote for independence in 1999. The indictments mark another small step on the path toward justice in East Timor.
U.N. officials say the 17 indictments were issued against Indonesian soldiers and anti-independence militiamen. They are accused of carrying out a campaign of terror in the months leading up to East Timor's independence vote. Among those indicted is militia leader Eurico Guterres. He is charged with five counts of crimes against humanity, including his alleged part in the murder of the son of an independence leader. Mr. Guterres also is accused of ordering the militiamen he commanded to attack independence supporters.
The United Nations has charged 99 people with human rights abuses, leading to a handful of convictions. Critics say that so far, only low-ranking militia members have been convicted, and not those who organized the campaign of violence. But a U.N. official says every indictment is a step in the right direction.
"The way the investigations are structured is that we have to work bottom up," explains Petra de Leeuw of the U.N. Serious Crimes Unit. "So, we have to start at the lower levels to collect evidence on the higher ranks and the commanders. And the only way we can establish command responsibility is from the lower ranks up. So in that sense, having Guterres on an indictment right now is one of the steps up."
U.N. officials say international arrest warrants will be issued for suspects, such as Mr. Guterres, believed to be hiding in Indonesia. Human rights groups accuse Indonesia of dragging its feet in investigating the human rights abuses before and after East Timor's independence vote. It remains uncertain whether Indonesia will comply with the international arrest warrants. The United Nations and Indonesia agreed earlier to support each other's investigations into rights violations, and to share evidence. Indonesia has yet to implement its side of the agreement, pending approval by Parliament. Jakarta, however, recently named 23 judges, who will rule in a special tribunal that will consider some East Timor cases. Those hearings are due to start in the coming weeks.