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Indonesia war crimes { March 13 2002 }

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Indonesian Officials Face Trial for War Crimes in East Timor

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 13, 2002; 12:30 PM

JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 13--Indonesia is scheduled to convene on Thursday the first trials of senior officials accused of crimes against humanity in East Timor, two and a half years after the Indonesian military and their militia proxies laid waste to the tiny territory after its vote for independence.

The trials, to be held in a specially created human-rights court, will be the first time the Indonesian government has attempted to punish any military officers for their role in the violence.

U.N. officials and human-rights advocates contend that the violence began as an effort to intimidate people from voting for independence. After the August 1999 ballot, the military and the militias exacted revenge by killing hundreds of civilians, burning down more than 85 percent of the buildings in the territory and forcibly deporting tens of thousands of people to Indonesian-controlled western Timor.

Indonesian officials hope the proceedings will satisfy demands for accountability from the U.N. and foreign governments, squelching calls for an international war crimes tribunal along the lines of those created for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The government is also hopeful that convening the trials will lead the U.S. Congress to overturn a ban on military assistance to Indonesia that was enacted after the East Timor violence.

An official close to President Megawati Sukarnoputri vowed that the trials would be free of political manipulation. "We are serious about addressing human-rights abuses," the official said.

But Western diplomats in Indonesia, U.N. officials and human-rights advocates contend that the trials will be deeply flawed. Prosecutors have said that only 18 people will be tried, most of them junior military officers, even though the country's human-rights commission found evidence implicating 15 other people, including the then-military chief, Gen. Wiranto.

The judges and prosecutors, none of whom have participated in such a tribunal, have received only one week of training in human-rights law. Military officials have not been cooperative with investigators, according to diplomats. Court officials said there are no plans to call witnesses who live in East Timor. And diplomats and rights advocates fear that some suspects have been urged to not to implicate high-ranking officers.

"This will not be about justice or getting to the truth but about protecting senior officials," said Munir, the director of the country's largest human-rights group, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. "It is all a political game."

The law authorizing the creation of the tribunal limits its scope to crimes committed in East Timor in April and September 1999. Although some of the largest incidents of violence in the territory took place during those two months, human-rights activists have criticized the time limits as too narrow.

Under the Indonesian criminal system, the 18 suspects will not be formally charged until their first day in court. But officials in the attorney general's office and a lawyer representing several of the suspects said the charges against most of them will include crimes against humanity and dereliction of duty. If convicted, suspects could face the death penalty.

But legal analysts and diplomats said they expected most suspects to receive relatively light sentences out of concern among government leaders that stiff penalties could prompt a backlash from the military, which contends its actions were justified to prevent the country from splitting apart.

The military, in a press statement issued on Tuesday, called soldiers who served in East Timor "faithful citizens of the nation" and urged the judges to have the courage to decide the cases "without fear of the people's will."

"There's a real concern that because of political pressure, the prosecution will not be all that vigorous," a U.N. official said. "And if they're convicted, the best we can expect are token sentences."

Two of the highest-ranking officers to be prosecuted have been promoted from colonel to brigadier-general in the past year even though both were officially classified as suspects. And none of the 18 people slated to face trial are in custody.

"In what country can you be charged with crimes against humanity and not spend a night in jail?" the U.N. official said.

But in recent days, Indonesian prosecutors and judges have demonstrated unusual mettle in addressing a series of corruption cases, widely viewed here as a key test of Megawati's efforts to clean up the country's money-slicked political and judicial systems.

Last Thursday, prosecutors charged the son of former President Suharto with murder for the killing of a Supreme Court judge who sentenced him to prison for a multimillion-dollar real estate scam. A few hours later, prosecutors detained the speaker of parliament in connection with the alleged diversion of $4 million from the state food-distribution agency to his political party. And today, a judge sentenced the former director of the central bank to three years in prison for his role in a bank scandal.

"Megawati wants her government to uphold the rule of law," said Subagio Anam, a legislator who is a member of the president's political party. "This is crucial to our development as a democratic society."

Some political analysts have predicted that the detention of the speaker, Akbar Tandjung, who is the leader of the second-largest party in parliament, could lead his party to pull out of Megawati's coalition government in protest and become a potent opposition force.

But Anam said Megawati is willing to take the chance. "It's a calculated risk," he said. "It is better for her to fight against corruption and human-rights abuses."

The first two officials to face trial over East Timor are the territory's former police commander, Brig. Gen. Timbul Silaen, and the former governor, Abilio Osorio Soares. Both will be charged in connection with the massacre of scores of refugees at a church in the town of Suai in September 1999.

Prosecutors have not commented on the evidence they intend to introduce. But one of Silaen's lawyers, Tommy Sihotang, said his client will plead not guilty.

"He is an Indonesian officer who did not do anything wrong," Sihotang said. "These good men are being sacrificed because my government is bowing to pressure from America."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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