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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 16:05 GMT
East Timor launches truth commission
Commission member Isabel Guterres is sworn in as UNTAET head Sergio Vieira de Mello looks on
Seven commissioners were sworn in
East Timor has taken the first step towards healing the rifts in its society by inaugurating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with atrocities committed during the 25 years of occupation by Indonesian forces.

The people will help the commission through their submissions, their moral courage and their hearts

Xanana Gusmao
Timorese leader
The commission is expected to operate for at least two years and work in conjunction with East Timor's judicial system.

It will focus on atrocities committed between 1975, when Portuguese colonial rule collapsed in East Timor, and 1999, when Indonesia - which invaded the island a year after the Portuguese left - finally pulled out following a United Nations-sponsored plebiscite.

Between 100,000 and 200,000 East Timorese are estimated to have died in the early years of the occupation, many from starvation or disease.

The head of the UN transitional administration in East Timor (UNTAET), Sergio Vieira de Mello, said the commission would provide the people with an official ear to listen to their grievances and acknowledge their past suffering.

Xanana Gusmao
Gusmao is widely tipped to be elected president in next April's election
And he said it would provide an opportunity for genuine and long-lasting reconciliation.

The commission will deal with more minor offences, trying to reconcile the perpetrators and victims.

But - unlike its South African equivalent - it will not offer an amnesty to those who admit to serious crimes like murder or rape. Their cases will be passed on for prosecution in the normal courts.

The Timorese leader, Xanana Gusmao, said the seven commissioners faced an enormous challenge, but they would be helped by the support and moral courage of the people.

The commissioners will first undergo a period of training from international experts of the truth and reconciliation commissions of South Africa and Guatemala.

They will then begin work setting up offices throughout East Timor, but so far no date has been set for the first hearings.

The seven commissioners, who include a former political prisoner, a Catholic priest and a nurse, were sworn in at a former UN compound in the East Timorese capital, Dili.

Violent withdrawal

The final withdrawal of Indonesian troops in 1999 was traumatic.

At least 1,000 people were killed before and after the vote for independence and almost all the infrastructure was destroyed.

Much of the violence was committed by East Timorese militia gangs recruited and trained by the Indonesian army.

The commission has just two years to document the huge number of human rights violations which took place during this period.

See also:

17 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
14 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
30 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
25 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
30 Aug 00 | East Timor
30 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
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