10 Reasons Why Indonesian Courts Will Not Bring Justice To East Timor


In January 2000, the United Nations International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor and the Indonesian government’s own human rights commission both found the Indonesian military responsible for crimes against humanity committed in East Timor in 1999. The UN commission called for the establishment of an international tribunal. The Indonesian government balked at the possibility of international trials and in response promised to establish its own Ad Hoc Human Rights Court for East Timor. After numerous delays, prosecutions are expected to begin today in Jakarta.

The East Timor Action Network, along with most Indonesian and East Timorese human rights groups, does not expect these trials to be thorough or impartial or to provide justice for the people of East Timor. Here are 10 reasons why:

1. The Court’s limited jurisdiction covers only to April and September 1999 and only three of East Timor’s 13 districts — Suai, Liquicia and Dili. Numerous serious crimes committed in 1999 in East Timor will not be prosecuted. This piecemeal approach makes impossible prosecution of overall coordination by Indonesian security forces and political officials at the highest levels to disrupt the UN consultation, terrorize the East Timorese people before the vote and punish them for voting overwhelmingly in favor of independence. Many of these officials are not even listed as suspects.

2. The crimes were committed in East Timor, a territory never internationally recognized as Indonesian. They were committed against a UN mission created by the Security Council and involved assaults on both East Timorese and UN personnel. East Timorese staff of the UN mission were murdered in the aftermath of the ballot.

3. The Indonesian military (TNI) remains extremely powerful and continues to operate with impunity. Many members of the military accused of crimes against humanity and other abuses in East Timor continue to hold prominent positions and receive promotions. While the military may allow a few token prosecutions as a public relations effort to create the illusion of TNI reform and to re-establish military ties with the U.S., meaningful prosecutions of high-ranking officials are unlikely to be tolerated. As a head of the team deciding prosecutions for crimes in East Timor, Indonesia’s Attorney General M.A. Rahman recommended that only low-ranking officers be prosecuted.

4. The Court will not address crimes committed before April 1999. Most of the more than 200,000 East Timorese killed by Indonesian forces died in the first decade after the 1975 invasion. Since 1975, thousands were raped, imprisoned and tortured. With courts in East Timor overwhelmed and severely under-resourced, and Indonesia refusing to extradite suspects, despite an agreement with the UN administration, victims and their families are unlikely to see justice unless an international tribunal is created.

5. Indonesian prosecutors have not targeted any of the many systematic crimes committed against women in 1999, including rape and sexual slavery, as well as widespread forced sterilization during many years of the occupation.

6. East Timorese witnesses are unlikely to testify. They have been traumatized by decades of Indonesian occupation and, given the military and police refusal to ensure security during the UN ballot period, are distrustful of Indonesian commitments to protect them. The last minute issuance of untested witness protection regulations will not reassure anyone.

7. While Indonesia’s constitution bars retroactive prosecution, Indonesia’s legislature stated that this constitutional provision will not apply to past violations of internationally-recognized human rights heard by Ad Hoc Human Rights Courts. An appeals court may well rule that the constitution is paramount and overturn any convictions.

8. Many of the judges are unqualified, with little or no trial experience or knowledge of international human rights standards. Some have close ties to the Indonesian military.

9. Indonesian courts are notoriously corrupt and susceptible to political pressure. The U.S. State Department’s Country Report on Human Rights Practices described Indonesia’s judiciary as riddled with “pervasive corruption” and “subordinated to the executive.”

10. In the rare instances when low- or mid-level soldiers or militia were prosecuted, Indonesian courts have given light punishments for the most heinous human rights abuses. After the November 12, 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor, a Military Honor Council sentenced some low ranking soldiers to between eight and 18 months in prison. Several higher-ranking officers were “punished” by being sent abroad to study. On the other hand, East Timorese human rights activists who participated in the Santa Cruz protest and a Jakarta demonstration protesting the massacre were imprisoned for up to 15 years. More recently, militia members who confessed to brutally killing three UN refugee workers in West Timor initially received sentences of 10-20 months after they were convicted for inciting mob violence not murder. These were increased to a maximum of seven years only after an international outcry.

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