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Indonesia Court Acquits East Timor Suspects - 2004-08-06

An Indonesian appeals court has overturned the guilty verdicts of four men convicted of being behind the violence that surrounded East Timor's vote for independence. The decision provides extra ammunition for critics who say Indonesia has failed to take seriously the human rights abuses in East Timor.

Unless the latest verdict is overturned on appeal, only two Indonesian officials will be punished for the carnage in East Timor five years ago.

An appeals court in Jakarta overturned the verdicts of three senior army officers and a police commissioner several days ago. Appeals verdicts in Indonesia usually are not announced immediately and the news became public on Friday.

A special human rights court convicted the four men in 2002 and 2003. Prosecutors say they will appeal the latest ruling. The Indonesian army and the militias it supported are accused of killing more than 1,000 people and reducing East Timor to smoldering rubble. The violence began weeks before the territory voted in 1999 to separate from Indonesia, and continued until United Nations peacekeepers arrived.

Immediately after the carnage, there were calls for an international tribunal to try Indonesian officials. Jakarta headed off the demands by setting up its own courts, but only 18 people were tried, and of the six found guilty, four have now been freed on appeal.

Only one man, former East Timor Governor Abilio Soares is in prison. Militia leader Eurico Guterres had been sentenced to 10 years in prison, but the appeals court halved that. Both men are ethnic East Timorese.

"The whole process is just to show that justice is being done in Indonesia, but the whole scenario is just to set free all their people, and just to put many Timorese behind bars," said Joao Sarmento, a human rights activist in East Timor. "That's not fair."

East Timorese officials have backed away from demanding retribution for the violence, believing that good relations with their giant neighbor are more important.

International calls for Indonesia to pursue the culprits more forcefully have become more muted since Jakarta became an ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Some human rights observers say the latest court ruling will increase pressure on the United Nations to bring those responsible for East Timor's ruin to justice.