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E. Timor Sentences Pro-Indonesian Militia Member - 2003-12-09

A court in East Timor has sentenced a former member of a pro-Indonesia militia to more than 10 years in prison. He was convicted for his role in the killings of two United Nations staff who were overseeing the independence ballot four years ago. The two United Nations workers were killed in September 1999 - shortly after the U.N. organized ballot in which the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly to split from Indonesia.

In a judgment handed down Tuesday, the Special Panel for Serious Crimes found Salvador Soares guilty of participating in the attack on the U.N. staffers - mounted by members of the Indonesian Army and their allies in the locally recruited militia.

Soares is one of 10 people indicted for the crime. The other nine - including at least one serving member of the Indonesian Army - are believed to be still at large within Indonesia.

The Indonesian Army did its best to derail the independence referendum - including creating violent militias like the one Soares belonged to, to try and intimidate the East Timorese into voting to stay part of Indonesia.

Human rights organizations estimate that one-thousand people died in the period surrounding the vote. Forty-one militia members have been convicted by the East Timorese courts of taking part in the violence, but most fled to Indonesia when an international intervention force entered the territory.

Jakarta has refused to hand over any of those who have been indicted to East Timor justice.

Indonesia has set-up its own special human rights tribunal to try suspects in the East Timor violence - but human rights groups have criticized the effort as a sham. Only six of 18 people tried in Indonesia have been convicted and all six are free pending their appeal.

Some 250,000 East Timorese are estimated to have died of violence, starvation or disease during Indonesia's 29-year rule of the former Portuguese colony. After the 1999 vote, the United Nations took over the running of the country, and it achieved full independence in 2001.

The East Timor government has set up a truth and reconciliation commission to try and heal some of the wounds. But observers say the process can never be completed until Indonesia admits its role in the violence and becomes a participant in delivering justice for the victims.