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Justice Falters in Indonesia

January 04, 2003

Indonesia's brutal occupation of East Timor turned especially violent around the time of a 1999 referendum on independence for the province. The United Nations estimates that 1,000 people were murdered before and after the voting, as Indonesian soldiers goaded civilian militias to rampage, burning homes and attacking native Timorese who favored freedom.

Indonesia has done a dismal job of holding army officers accountable for that brutal mayhem. Last week, a court set up just to deal with such cases convicted a lieutenant colonel and sentenced him to five years in jail for his role, an action remarkable only because it was the first such conviction.

Unfortunately, days later, the same special court reverted to form. A judge found another lieutenant colonel not guilty in an attack that killed at least 22 independence supporters in a church.

The court did, last year, convict the last governor of Indonesian-ruled East Timor, Jose Abilio Soares, of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to three years in prison.

However, before the conviction of the single officer, 10 former or current military and police officials had been acquitted of involvement in the independence violence. Even the one conviction may not stand. Human rights groups said the officer could go free on appeal.

The army long has been powerful in Indonesia and spearheaded the 1975 seizure of East Timor when Portugal withdrew from its colonial holdings. Four years later, the Indonesian government reported that 120,000 people had died of disease or been killed, many for resisting the annexation. East Timorese estimate the death toll in 24 years of occupation at 200,000.

The United Nations, which conducted the vote on independence, also provided peacekeepers and a transitional government to guide the territory to freedom. It has done a good job of setting up a new police force and training civil servants. But the western section of the island remains part of Indonesia and shelters former militia members, some of them convicted in absentia in East Timor courts.

The Indonesian government appointed a human rights commission soon after the voting. The commission held 200 people, including six generals, "morally responsible" for the violence. Holding people legally responsible is tougher, but not as difficult as the Indonesian court's results indicate. The failure to provide justice makes reconciliation between the oppressed former colony and Indonesia even harder.

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