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Indonesian General Acquitted in E. Timor Abuse Case - 2003-05-22

An Indonesian court has acquitted a senior military officer of crimes against humanity in East Timor. The verdict is likely to upset human rights groups, which have long charged that the tribunal has failed to carry out justice.

A five-judge panel ruled that prosecutors failed to prove Brigadier General Tono Suratman was involved in human rights abuses in East Timor, and acquitted him. General Suratman was one of the top military commanders in East Timor until three weeks before it voted to break free of Indonesian rule in August 1999. He was charged with failing to control troops who committed systematic killings. Had he been convicted, General Suratman would have faced up to 10 years in prison. The charges relate to the massacre of dozens of people at a church in the East Timorese town of Liquica in April 1999, and the killing of at least 12 people sheltering at the home of an independence leader. The special human rights court has indicted 18 Indonesian officials. The government formed the court was formed in response to international pressure to account for alleged abuses by Indonesian officials. But some human rights groups call the court a sham, in part because 12 of those indicted have been acquitted. And all the five people convicted earlier remain free pending appeals.

Rights groups also say the court has failed to indict some senior officials - including Indonesia's former defense minister, General Wiranto. Hundreds of people died in East Timor in the weeks surrounding its independence vote. Human rights groups say members of the Indonesian military orchestrated that violence, carried out by anti-independence militias, and in some cases, joined in. General Suratman is one of three generals charged by the special human rights court and the second to be acquitted. A third, General Adam Damiri, has failed to turn up in court several times, and was not there Wednesday. His defense team says he cannot attend court to hear his verdict because he now is serving in the province of Aceh, where earlier this week the government imposed martial law.