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Major suspects escape justice while small fish fry in East Timor

By Gwynn Mac Carrick - posted Friday, 31 January 2003

In the top-security cell, which smells pungent, one man is a day or so away from death, his head twice normal size due to a neurological disease. The warden keenly observes: "You can smell death in this cubicle."

This is a country, they speculate, where local eye-for-an-eye justice is inevitable; and where the formal UN-sponsored legal system and formal law struggles for relevance amid ineptitude, while the local order sharpen their machete.

My client is a militia commander charged with offences amounting to Crimes Against Humanity, originally charged with other co-accused, who for their part pleaded early. He now stands alone; charged on the basis of command responsibility for an assortment of charges namely, murder, rape, torture, imprisonment and persecution.


I am speaking with my client in his cell, and a nun appears and is granted entrance. The men of C block, all on charges of multiple murders, are reputed to be the most hardened of militia men -they all run to kiss her hand. They sit cross-legged like schoolboys and with handclapping gestures sing what sounds like a hymn she has taught them by rote.

This is a common theme. Inscribed on cement walls throughout the gaol, a strange combination of extreme religious fanaticism and deep-seated fascination with violence. Inmates see no contradiction in etching on their cell wall, a crucified lord and a bloodthirsty warrior eating a child. Hung over sleeping mats are crosses made from discarded boxes of Colgate toothpaste.

In an unused part of this prison, which operated during the Indonesian occupation, vacant cells are an ominous reminder of a brutal past. In these close quarters political prisoners languished, while the rest of the world sought amnesty. A lifetime of history scratched into these walls, like an artist's pallet - they tell stories.

Ghosts of an ideal. Now on Timor's list of 'disappeared', few would have lived to see their glorious Falintil flag raised on independent soil. Bullet holes in the court yard mark the fate of brave advocates of self determination.

In a twist of fate the prison now swells with pro-integration militia, indicted for crimes arising out of the events of September 1999. In the scheme of things however, these inmates are largely small fry. Simple villagers easily coaxed or coerced, partly by virtue of their servile deference to Indonesian authority, partly due to an acceptance of the impunity enjoyed by TNI military officers.

These indictees are generally characterised by an absence of education, and a distinct lack of sophistication. These are the scapegoats. They are the statistics that will ultimately be presented to appease the conscience of the world.


While not for an instant belittling their charges or dishonouring the victims, instead I seek to question why, outside this gaol and across the water to Jakarta, the true authors of atrocities evade international justice and perpetuate the exemption from punishment enjoyed by agents of state, who have for a quarter of a century flagrantly violated the human rights of indigenous Timorese.

Let me digress briefly, to highlight recent disturbing international developments that undermine confidence and lend an Orwellian flavour to the pursuit of international justice in East Timor.

Of late, Jakarta's Human Rights Court has proved nothing less than a theatre for show trials dispensing a litany of manifestly inadequate sentences and outright acquittals - as commitment to pursue TNI military commanders for the 1999 bloodbath weakens. Indonesia, it now appears, has a special friend in the Bush Administration who now seek to woo the TNI for their own "war on terrorism" in South East Asia. Pragmatism inevitably claims justice as the first casualty in any deal brokered between strange bedfellows.

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About the Author

Gwynn MacCarrick is a Human Rights lawyer based in Hobart. She has appeared as Defence counsel before the UN Special Panel for Serious Crimes in East Timor, has worked with the Office of the Prosecutor at the UN Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and in between her domestic criminal practice has taken up various postings with the UN High Commission for Refugees. Gwynn is undertaking a doctorate in international criminal law at the University of Tasmania Law School.

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Government of East Timor
United Nations Temporary Administration in East Timor
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