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Last Updated: Friday, 5 November 2004, 15:06 GMT
East Timor's unfinished business
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News

Five years after 1,000 people died as East Timor broke away from Indonesia, almost all those responsible for the violence are still walking free.

An Indonesian court's decision on Friday to acquit East Timor's former governor Abilio Soares means only one conviction brought by Jakarta now stands.

East Timor President Gusmao at a cemetery, October 2004
President Gusmao wants better relations with Indonesia
Yet while the international community is quick to dismiss Indonesia's justice as a whitewash, few foreign governments are prepared to back their words with actions.

There is therefore a risk, analysts say, that the issue of justice over East Timor will be allowed to fade away.

Friday's court ruling came at the end of a two-year process that saw 18 people tried in Indonesia for human rights abuses in East Timor.

Jakarta set up a special human rights court to try the suspects, most of whom were members of the Indonesian security forces.

Now the court has failed to secure convictions, human rights groups say the cases should be handed over to an independent commission, with international backing.

A great many people, both aid workers on the ground and Timorese, feel it is time to move forward
Peter Kessler, UNHCR
But the biggest barrier to this and other suggestions is that East Timor's government is not interested.

Despite the loss of life and suffering during the 1999 violence, the country's new leaders now want a better relationship with their giant neighbour.

President Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's most famous resistance fighter, is now the strongest advocate of reconciliation, taking care not to offend Indonesian sensitivities, and even publicly embracing Gen Wiranto, the head of Indonesia's military in 1999.

One reason for this turnaround is that East Timor is so dependent on Indonesia for trade. East Timor is not only the world's youngest nation, but also one of its poorest - with one in four people living below the poverty line.

The other main factor, according to Marcelino Magno, a political analyst in East Timor, is security concerns regarding up to 15,000 Indonesian militia members and their relatives still living just across the border in Indonesian West Timor.

So although the EU, US and the UN may express concerns that justice does not appear to have been done, they are unlikely to push for something the East Timorese leadership does not want itself.

Popular anger

Suai mass grave discovered in 1999
Without justice, the memories may not be laid to rest
Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UN's refugee body the UNHCR, said East Timor's focus was on reconciliation.

"A great many people, both aid workers on the ground and Timorese, feel it is time to move forward, work on better relations," he said.

But Mr Magno said the majority of East Timorese did not support this view. They wanted to see Jakarta held accountable for the violence, and were angry at their government for not working harder.

"They have criticised the president, the prime minister, and the foreign minister because of this issue," he said.

Paul Barber of UK-based Indonesian rights campaign Tapol agreed.

"They are very helpless and frustrated and angry," he said.

But the wishes of East Timor's people is not the only the issue at stake.

Mr Barber said that the international community had to bring the alleged perpetrators of the violence to trial regardless of the East Timorese government's position.

"The East Timor government and the Indonesian government seem to have a veto over what should happen. That is hugely problematic because we're talking about alleged crimes against humanity.... the reason the international community are meant to take responsibility for such crimes is that they're of such a grave nature," he said.

And for the people of East Timor, as long as the 1999 violence in unpunished, then however successful the government's efforts at nation building, the ghosts of the past may not be laid to rest.

Ex-East Timor governor acquitted
05 Nov 04 |  Asia-Pacific
US 'dismayed' at E Timor tribunal
10 Aug 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Jakarta rejects Timor convictions
06 Aug 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: East Timor
13 Nov 03 |  Country profiles
Country profile: East Timor
13 Nov 03 |  Country profiles

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