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Indonesian Officials on Trial For Crimes Against Humanity - 2002-03-14

Indonesia has opened the first trials of officials accused of crimes against humanity during a period of violence in East Timor three years ago. The landmark cases come amid some concern that other senior officials responsible for the bloodshed may go unpunished.

A prosecutor read an indictment against Abilio Soares, the former governor of East Timor. Mr. Soares is charged with crimes against humanity for his alleged involvement in several violent incidents, including the massacre of a group of civilians in a church.

If found guilty, Mr. Soares may face the death penalty.

Also on trial Thursday was Police Brigadier General Timbul Silaen who has been indicted for crimes against humanity allegedly committed in some of the same incidents.

Both defendants say they have done nothing wrong.

Lawyers for Mr. Soares argued that the court, a special human rights tribunal, is without legal basis, and therefore, is not competent to try him. They won a temporary delay in proceedings.

General Silaen's legal advisers took a different tack, arguing that their client is not guilty because he was working in the interest of Indonesia's national unity.

The historic trials opened after a series of delays and amid growing skepticism that Indonesia is too slow to confront allegations of human rights abuses on the part of its own officials.

Mr. Soares and General Silaen are the first of seven indicted officials to be brought to trial. Altogether, Indonesia named 18 people as suspects in human rights abuse cases.

Human rights groups say hundreds of people died in East Timor in a frenzy of violence that, they charge, was orchestrated by Indonesian police and military officials.

The campaign of terror was carried out by pro-Jakarta militia groups before and after the August 1999 decision by East Timorese voters to break free of Indonesian rule.

Emotions on the question of East Timor continue to run high for those who wanted the territory to remain part of Indonesia.

Several dozen demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse in protest against the trials. They say the court cases are a result of foreign intervention in Indonesia's internal affairs. So far, the protest has been peaceful.