Ed Johnson Sept. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Australian police have begun a war crimes investigation into the deaths of five journalists in East Timor in 1975 after a coroner ruled they were deliberately killed by Indonesian soldiers.
Deputy Coroner for New South Wales state Dorelle Pinch found in November 2007 that the men, known as the “Balibo Five,” were killed by special forces to stop them revealing details of Indonesia’s invasion of the territory.
The Australian Federal Police said in a statement today it began a probe last month after the Attorney-General’s Department referred the matter to the force.
“Allegations of war crimes committed overseas give rise to complex legal and factual issues that require careful consideration by law enforcement agencies before deciding to investigate,” police said in the statement.
The Australian, British and New Zealand journalists were killed in the town of Balibo on Oct. 16, 1975, as Indonesian special forces took part in covert operations to prepare for an invasion of what was then a Portuguese colony. The Indonesian military denies any wrongdoing in the deaths and has said the men were killed accidentally by crossfire.
“It’s case closed for us,” Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said by telephone. “We will ask for clarification from the Australian government on the nature, purpose and scope of this probe.”
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the investigation is a matter for police. The government doesn’t believe the probe will affect the “mature and multifaceted relationship” between the two countries, the department said.
Brian Peters, 29, in the company of fellow Briton Malcolm Rennie, 28, New Zealander Gary Cunningham, 27, and Australians Gregory Shackleton, 29, and Anthony Stewart, 21, was killed “deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces,” the coroner ruled.
The coroner was tasked with investigating only Peters’s death, although she noted her findings were applicable to all of the men. To “investigate the death of one of the Balibo Five was to investigate the deaths of all,” she wrote in the report.
If the investigation points to a “real possibility of criminality,” the force will refer the matter to Australian prosecutors, who will determine whether to pursue a case, according to the police statement.
‘War Crime Allegations’
“The investigation of war crime allegations can be problematic where witnesses and evidence are located offshore or where a significant period of time has elapsed since the commission of the offense,” the AFP said. “The standard of proof in a criminal proceeding is high, and differs from that of a coronial inquiry.”
Indonesia, which already controlled the western part of the island, invaded East Timor in 1975 and occupied the territory for 24 years.
A campaign of violence by pro-Indonesia militia during the territory’s 1999 vote for independence killed hundreds of civilians and forced about 250,000 people to flee to the western half of the island.
East Timor, also known as Timor Leste, became independent in 2002. The island lies about 500 kilometers (310 miles) north of Australia.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ed Johnson in Sydney at email@example.com.
Last Updated: September 9, 2009 03:41 EDT