Indonesian court's acquitals outrage human rights groups

Friday, August 16, 2002

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- In a development that could complicate the Bush administration's drive to renew ties to the Indonesian military, two courts on Thursday acquitted six officials accused of grave human rights violations in East Timor.

The verdicts outraged human rights groups, who have long feared that most of those who unleashed bloody mayhem across the half-island state in 1999 would go unpunished, despite Indonesia's promises to the international community that justice would be done.

"This means that the whole process is really a farce," East Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said Thursday during a visit to the Philippines.

The United States cut off military ties with Indonesia to protest the East Timor violence, and it was not immediately clear if Thursday's acquittals would affect Washington's current drive to renew those links.

Terror cooperation

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country -- and its cooperation in the war on terror is a priority for Washington.

"The issue of accountability and reform is a key component of our ability to pursue a normal military-to-military relationship," Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet, told reporters before Thursday's verdicts were announced.

Concerned that future prosecutions against 11 other Indonesian officials would also collapse, some demanded the United Nations set up an independent war crimes tribunal.

Military and police officers along with families and friends cheered and hugged Thursday's defendants when the "not guilty" verdicts were read.

One court cleared Brig. Gen. Timbul Silaen -- Indonesia's last police chief in East Timor -- of charges that he allowed his men to take part in atrocities or did nothing to stop a rampage by paramilitary gangs after East Timor's people voted overwhelmingly for independence in a U.N.-sponsored plebiscite in August 1999.

Later, another court acquitted a group of two active colonels and two majors in the army and police force, along with a retired army colonel.

"The defendants have not been proven guilty and therefore should be acquitted of all charges," said Judge Cicut Sutiarso.

He said there was "no evidence" they had conspired with the gangs who ended the violence when a multinational peacekeeping force arrived.

All had been charged with allowing men under their command to commit atrocities, which included rape, murder and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Sidney Jones of the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group predicted that a Bush administration proposal to begin training Indonesian soldiers will still be approved next month by the U.S. Congress.

"But I think there's going to be enormous pressure on the U.S. government to say how it intends to press the issue of accountability," she added.

Human rights groups have voiced little faith in Indonesia's courts, long tainted by corruption and political interference, to handle the cases impartially. The trials of the 18 former officials in East Timor have been widely criticized for failing to adequately portray the role of the Indonesian security forces in the violence.

"From the beginning, there was a lot of doubt about the court proceedings. East Timorese no longer believe in the justice system in Indonesia," said Aniceto Neves, who heads the rights group Yayasan HAK, in East Timor's capital, Dili.

Amnesty International and the Judicial System Monitoring Program urged the United Nations to set up a separate court to prosecute East Timor atrocities akin to the ones for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The sentencing Wednesday of the province's former governor -- Abilio Soares -- to three years imprisonment was the first verdict in the series of trials.

East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, first proclaimed independence in November 1975, after the collapse of the colonial administration. Indonesia invaded 10 days later after obtaining tacit approval from then-President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

At least 100,000 people, mainly civilians, were killed during the guerrilla struggle that followed.

It gained full independence in May, after a period of transitional rule by the United Nations.

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