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Indonesian Court Overturns Conviction of Former E. Timor Governor

Indonesia's supreme court has overturned the conviction of the only man so far imprisoned for the violence surrounding East Timor's vote for independence five years ago. The decision has provoked new criticism from some human rights activists of what they see as Indonesia's failure to punish those responsible for the deaths of over 1,000 people.

East Timor's former governor, Abilio Soares, was convicted of crimes against humanity for failing to do enough to stop a bloodbath in a church a few months before the vote was held. Following Friday's supreme court ruling, he will now go free after serving four months of his three-year sentence.

In August 1999, the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly to split from Indonesia 25 years after Jakarta annexed the former Portuguese colony.

Indonesian forces and the militias they sponsored killed more than one thousand people and reduced East Timor to smoking rubble in the weeks before and after the United Nations-organized referendum.

After the vote, there were widespread calls for an international tribunal to try those responsible, but Indonesia forestalled the move by setting up its own courts. However, those courts have attracted widespread condemnation: they only tried 18 people for their role in the carnage and 17 of them have now been acquitted.

The lack of justice has not surprised some observers. Jaoquim Fonseca helped run a human rights organization at the time of the vote and is now a lecturer at the University in the East Timorese capital Dili.

"People sort of knew it was not going to benefit anyone as far as justice was concerned and I think the acquittal of Abilio Soares now is, you know, additional evidence to support that argument," said Jaoquim Fonseca.

Mr. Soares always maintained his innocence, and said he was used as a scapegoat by the military.

The loss of East Timor is still a raw subject for fiercely nationalist Indonesians, and there is little interest among politicians in pursuing justice, particularly as it would mean taking on the country's powerful military.

The only East Timor-related case remaining before the Indonesian courts is that of militia leader Eurico Guterres, who has been sentenced to five years in jail, but he is still free pending appeal.