12 March 2010

East Timor hotel development reveals multiple graves

Thu Mar 11, 2010 4:58pm IST By Tito Belo - DILI (Reuters) - The construction of a luxury hotel near East Timor's capital has uncovered machine-dug graves containing remains of people who may have been killed during the country's occupation by Indonesia, scientists said on Thursday.

An estimated 180,000 East Timorese died during the 25-year occupation by Jakarta and the United Nations estimates around 1,000 died in violence surrounding the 1999 vote that led to the nation gaining independence.

When a property developer was given approval to build a five-star hotel on waterfront land in Tibar, in Dili's west, the government called in a group of Australian forensic scientists to investigate the site first.

"This area has long been talked about by various people, a lot of the community in Dili, as having been used by the Indonesians as a place to dispose of bodies," said Soren Blau, a scientist at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and a member of the investigative team.

"None of those stories have ever been verified," said Blau.

The team found two machine-dug graves about 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) deep, one containing seven skeletons and one containing two.

"They were piled on top of each other," Blau told Reuters by telephone, declining to elaborate on the victims' gender or cause of death. "I can say there is evidence of things like ligatures and blindfolds."

The team is working with the government and local community to identify the skeletons and some bones may be taken to Australia for tests.

"There are many families who perhaps might think this is their relative," she said.

Blau said that Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao visited the site on Thursday.

A joint Indonesia-East Timor Truth and Friendship Commission set up in 2005 revealed cases of torture, rape, kidnappings and killings perpetrated during the Indonesian occupation, but the commission did not have the power to prosecute.

Amnesty International has called for the creation of an international tribunal to investigate crimes committed during the occupation but President Jose Ramos-Horta has opposed the idea.

East Timorese activist Gregorio Saldanha, who has been helping the scientists at the Tibar site, said he believed there were about six other such sites around Dili.

"We want to collect all the bones and put them in a special place," he told Reuters in Dili. "We are doing this to dignify the victims and bring peace to the families of victims."

Saldanha said he did not expect the families to take legal action.

"So we hope the Indonesian authorities can tell us where the victims were buried and we want to make clear that our effort has no relation with any legal aspect," he said. "Our intention is to dignify families of victims."

(Additional reporting by Sunanda Creagh in Jakarta; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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