02 September 2009

Timor violence victims to renew call for justice

September 1, 2009 The Age MARIS BECK, DILI - IN EAST Timor’s notorious Balide prison, the walls are scrawled with the hatred of the past. Graffiti left by the prison guards says: "Die or Live with Indonesia", and "Don’t forget to pray".

Balide prison was once a place of brutality. For the 30 years that Indonesia occupied East Timor, it was a place of torture, rape, imprisonment, and death.

But today the infamous prison has a different purpose. Victims of violence will today meet senior United Nations officials and East Timorese government representatives to renew their calls for justice and compensation, to ask that perpetrators of past crimes be brought to trial.

Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of East Timor’s vote for independence. But for many, the struggle to overcome the past continues. For those who bear the scars of torture, who lost years of their lives and loved ones, the past is a daily oppression.

Although the United Nations Serious Crimes Unit has indicted almost 400 people, many of those accused of the worst crimes have never been brought to trial.

Maria da Silva was taken to Balide prison in 1977, after she was caught helping the clandestine resistance fighters. She was 23 years old.

She was tortured repeatedly - beaten for so long she lost count of the hours.

For months, she was locked in solitary confinement with no toilet and little food.

Once another prisoner was put into her cell, badly beaten. She shared the cell with him all night before she realized he was dead.

There were all kinds of violence in the prison, she says. No one was spared.

As Ms da Silva spoke to The Age, there was a brief earth tremor. She paused for a moment and drew her arms close. In Timor, she said, "we believe that such things are signs that the dead are speaking to us, reminding us of the past.

"Without justice", she says, "there can be no peace."

Today, she will stand before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, and speak those words, in the prison where she was once held captive.

The same request will be repeated by a National Congress of Victims’ Families this week.

But in a country where stability hangs in a careful balance, the issue of prosecution and compensation for past crimes is contentious.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur in East Timor, Atul Khare said he was "not so sure" about an international tribunal, but that there should be compensation for victims and "some degree of accountability".

Although Amnesty International called for a tribunal last week, President Jose Ramos Horta responded in his anniversary speech on Sunday by urging the country to leave the past behind. He said: "There will be no tribunal."

Mr Ramos Horta told The Age that there could be no compensation for victims. The fight for independence, he said, "was not a contractual job with insurance."

He said: "We fought for a cause and I’m not going to listen to people coming to me and saying well, I was tortured, I lost a brother a sister and I want compensation - from whom? From the Timorese government? From Indonesia? From the Americans who helped Indonesia? No.

"The greatest act of justice is that we are free today."

Dr. Clinton Fernandes, an expert on East Timor from the Australian Defence Force Academy, said he believed Mr Ramos Horta is "simply being pragmatic".

He said the "diplomatic burden" of a tribunal would be too much for East Timor to bear. But over the next several years, he said, having such a tribunal might be feasible.
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East Timor Law Journal - Towards the rule of law in Timor-Leste.

Advocating for an international criminal tribunal for crimes against humanity in Timor-Leste.
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