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Quiet punch of East Timor report

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Dili

Pro-Indonesian militiamen in Dili on 12 April 1999
Pro-Jakarta militia were blamed for much of the violence in 1999

On Tuesday, the world's first bilateral Truth Commission will present its final report to the presidents of East Timor and Indonesia.

What happened between them in 1999 will be publicly rewritten.

That was the year East Timor voted for independence, after 24 years of Indonesian occupation. During that year, about 1,000 people are believed to have been murdered, and many others tortured, raped and displaced.

Despite special courts being set up in both countries, and several reports detailing evidence of the abuses, most key suspects have never faced trial.

'Systematic violence'

This commission - called The Truth and Friendship Commission - is the two nations' answer to that failure.

It is an attempt to move the focus away from criminal trials towards "restorative justice" - to draw a line under the events of the past, while avoiding an international tribunal.

What the report has delivered will not satisfy any of the key players completely - not the victims, nor those lobbing for justice, nor everyone in the Indonesian army - and it is probably not exactly what the countries' leaders bargained for either.

But this report was directly commissioned by those governments, and it packs a quiet punch.

Map

It says this: that crimes against humanity were committed in East Timor in 1999, and that the vast majority of them were committed with the backing and cooperation of the Indonesian army.

Army commanders, it says, armed, funded and organised pro-Indonesian militias in a highly organised way.

Contrary to Indonesia's traditional position, the gross human rights violations committed then, the report says, were clearly not spontaneous, isolated incidents, but systematically targeted pro-independence supporters in a campaign of violence for which Indonesia's army, police and civilian administration were responsible.

Public record

What the report does not say is who exactly in those institutions was to blame.

And that has been controversial. The commission was tasked with establishing the conclusive truth about the events of 1999, and which institutions - but not which individuals - were responsible.

The report was not linked to any judicial process, so the evidence given to it will not lead to criminal trials.

But criminal trials are exactly what many victims want. Is a quick ceremony, and an acknowledgement of institutional responsibility really the last word on the subject?

Perhaps not - for two reasons.

Firstly, this report does not preclude criminal trials. No amnesties were recommended; no rehabilitation of those allegedly wrongfully accused either.

And as one of the report's authors, Leigh-Ashley Lipscomb, explained, a truth commission does not obstruct a judicial process - they are totally separate things.

This commission could actually help in criminal trials, she says, "because as well as being a public record of what happened, it also contains testimony from perpetrators and victims from both countries".

This is the most comprehensive report ever compiled on the events of 1999. It pulls together previous documents, offers new evidence, and publishes that from previous indictments.

But it also does something that individual criminal trials do not do; it addresses the broad structural issues in political and military institutions.

"When you're trying crimes against humanity," says Leigh-Ashley Lispcomb, "it's not about just a single murder. If you don't change the structure and systems, there's always the risk it could happen again."

Military reform?

And that is where this report will - or will not - be given real weight: in the long road to army reform in Indonesia.

Will it happen? The country's defence minister says many of the report's recommendations - for human rights training, for example, and institutional reform - are already in hand.

He admits there are those within the military who are resistant to the idea, but says it is not up to them anymore - the army is now under the control of the civilian government.

The question is how tough that civilian government will be.

This will be an awkward report to ignore - after all, it was co-commissioned by the president himself.

But many of Indonesia's senior generals are still powerful, and public pressure from ordinary Indonesians is minimal.

And in East Timor too, there are those who are ready to move on. Not in places like Suai or Liquica - small towns stained by massacre, torture or rape - but on the streets of the capital Dili. And in the presidential office.

This report will not lead directly to criminal trials, but it might lead to an apology, perhaps compensation, and it will be another push in the direction of army reform.

That will not satisfy many of the victims, but it does not have to be the end of the road.





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