28 August 2009

Timor Leste accused of forsaking justice for sake of reconciliation

The Irish Times Friday, August 28, 2009 Joe Humphreys AS TIMOR-LESTE prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of its ballot for independence, Amnesty International has accused the country’s government and its former occupiers Indonesia of embracing reconciliation “at the expense of justice”.

The human rights organisation says neither Dili nor Jakarta has been willing to prosecute those who committed crimes against humanity in the lead-up to the 1999 poll and its aftermath.

“This path sets a dangerous precedent for the development of the role of law in both countries,” Amnesty says in a new report, We Cry for Justice: Impunity Persists 10 years on in Timor-Leste.

More than 1,000 people were killed when Indonesian militias backed by the Indonesian military went on the rampage in the weeks before and after the vote for independence on August 30th, 1999, ending 24 years of Indonesian occupation.

The victims included staff of the United Nations, which evacuated the country until security was restored by an Australian-led team of international peacekeepers.

Amnesty criticises previous inquiries into the killings, including the ad-hoc human rights court set up by the Indonesian government, which tried 18 defendants – all of whom were later acquitted.

It also describes as “inadequate” the Indonesia-Timor-Leste Truth and Friendship Commission, which reported last year on the atrocities carried out during the transition to independence.

Timor-Leste’s president José Ramos-Horta, who survived an assassination attempt in February 2008, fears that prosecuting those responsible for atrocities could create serious instability in the fledgling state, as well as damage relations with its main trading partner Indonesia.

The report notes Mr Ramos-Horta has ordered the release of the few people imprisoned for past crimes under a policy of “let bygones be bygones”. But, this “goes against what victims in Timor-Leste are calling for today”.

The report also criticises the Dili government’s refusal to provide reparations for victims of past atrocities. Warning of a “cycle of impunity” in the country, Amnesty called on the UN Security Council to immediately set up an international criminal tribunal with jurisdiction over all crimes committed in Timor-Leste between 1975 and 1999. “The lack of any response from the international community to this situation is shameful,” it said.

Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty in Ireland, said Ireland, as a traditional ally of Timor-Leste and donor of “considerable aid to the region”, should “use its influence to demand an international criminal tribunal to secure justice for the Timorese people”. Speaking in Dublin earlier this week, the Government’s special envoy to Timor-Leste Dame Nuala O’Loan said the level of trauma created by Indonesian occupation and the transition to independence “cannot be underestimated”.

Mr Ramos-Horta sent a message to the same event, which was organised by Trócaire and Irish Aid, praising “the enormous contribution made not only by successive Irish governments but also by the ordinary people of Ireland” to the country’s struggle for independence.

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