Global Policy Forum

Justice for Timor War Criminals?


By David Loyn

February 18, 2005

Aprecio Guterres will be the last person to be tried by the war crimes court set up in East Timor. After his case has been heard, the United Nations has ordered the court to close, as operations wind down ahead of the final UN pullout on 20 May. It has already stayed a year beyond its original mandate, and no further extension looks likely. If he is found guilty, Mr Guterres will be the 75th person to be jailed for crimes connected to the events of 1999, when a vote for independence sparked violent gun battles. More than 500,000 people had to leave their homes, tens of thousands died and most of the buildings of East Timor were destroyed as Indonesian forces went on the rampage.

The end of the war crimes trials will mean that the most high-profile person to be indicted, the former head of Indonesia's armed forces, General Wiranto, will never face charges in East Timor. He is unlikely to face trial in Indonesia either, despite being found "morally responsible" by a government-sponsored human rights inquiry. The Indonesians did put 18 people on trial, but none are actually in jail.

Compared to Liliput

East Timor's political leadership, which is trying to build bridges with the newly elected democratic government in Jakarta, is glad to see an end to the war crimes process. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta said that independence itself was enough justice. He has put his considerable moral weight behind a new process to be called a Truth and Friendship Commission, to put a line under the wrongs of the past. Part of the impetus for this comes from a desire not to inflame tensions in Jakarta, recognising that democracy is fragile.

Mr Ramos Horta has compared his country to Jonathan Swift's Lilliput - too small to take on a giant. "East Timor is not going to be the Lilliputian judge, which is going to bring to justice very powerful Indonesian ministers," he said. "If we are seen by Indonesia as conniving with the international community to continue to embarrass Indonesia, it could have a backlash against East Timor." But as the UN prepares to pull out, there are signs that the institutions it has built have failed to put down deep roots.

'Corruption and interference'

All of the country's judges are currently in classes, after failing law exams, and the nation's police force appears to have learnt too many of its techniques from the past, and not enough from the UN-financed international trainers. Joaqim Fonseca, a human rights activist who now works inside the government, said the public think the new police are just as bad as the old. "Problems have come in the form of police brutality, accepting kickbacks, and illegal backing of businesses," he said.

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said East Timor's police were very good compared to neighbouring countries. "When you have no problems, then small problems become big problems," he said. But outside observers complain of political interference and corruption. There has been interference, too, in the judicial process - most notably when government law officers first endorsed and then disowned the controversial indictment against General Wiranto.

Despite this, the prime minister puts the blame for judicial failings squarely on the UN. "I am sure that the justice sector was the worst done by the UN," he said. "We need a credible justice system in this country for sustainable development... and to attract investors, so I do believe that the UN will understand that and will keep on assisting us."

But there is no sign of continuing assistance for justice beyond May, although the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is committed to continue funding a judicial monitoring project to keep an eye on how things are going.

Local forgiveness

One part of the international community's work which will have a lasting effect is the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR), a process to re-integrate former militiamen and Indonesian army soldiers. Housed in a former political prison in Dili, where some of the cells have been left as a permanent memorial, the CAVR will publish a major report later this year, detailing thousands of horror stories so that East Timor never forgets.

The main culprits may never go to jail, but the small fry have been forgiven after explaining their stories. Their neighbours seem happy enough to accept that they too were victims of the times. Sometimes elaborate village ceremonies welcome them back. Bernadino Pires is a case in point. He said he was taken by the military and forced to work in a group which burnt houses. After the killings in 1999, he fled to West Timor, only returning when he could go through a public process managed by the CAVR. His neighbour Jacinta Tillman had her own house burnt down - although not by his gang - but she has welcomed him back home. "When he came back he was happy, and that made us happy too. We know that it was not his fault," she said.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the Ad-Hoc Court for East Timor
More Information on East Timor
More Information on General Wiranto


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