A former police chief and five army and police officers were acquitted Thursday of responsibility for the massacre of civilians in East Timor three years ago as the territory sought to secede from Indonesia.
The verdicts, handed down in two courts here in the Indonesian capital, appalled human rights activists and called into question the ability of the nation’s special human rights court to punish officials responsible for the military-backed mayhem that cost at least 1,000 lives.
“The trials were seriously flawed, have not been performed in accordance with international standards and have delivered neither truth nor justice,” said a joint statement issued by Amnesty International and the Judicial System Monitoring Program, an East Timor-based group that observed the trials.
The six defendants, including former East Timor Police Chief Timbul Silaen, were among 18 officers and civilians charged with crimes against humanity.
“I thank God that the judge has made the right decision and acknowledged that policemen were not involved in the violation of human rights,” Silaen said after the verdict.
The only defendant convicted so far is former East Timor Gov. Jose Abilio Soares, who was found guilty Wednesday of crimes against humanity and sentenced to three years in prison.
The court concluded that he failed to prevent killings carried out by pro-government militia gangs opposed to independence for the territory.
Rights activists say that top officials responsible for many of the killings were never indicted and that prosecutors did not present evidence in court of the military’s role in organizing the gangs.
East Timor was forcibly annexed in 1976 by the government of Indonesian strongman Suharto. After he stepped down in 1998, the Indonesian government agreed to let East Timor hold a referendum on Aug. 30, 1999, to decide the territory’s fate.
The army, which opposed independence, organized the militias to intimidate the East Timorese. After nearly 80% of the voters cast their ballots for secession, the militias ran amok, slaughtering civilians, destroying thousands of buildings and sending 260,000 refugees fleeing across the border into West Timor, which remains a province of Indonesia.
Placed under United Nations protection, East Timor became independent in May.
In one courtroom Thursday, Silaen was acquitted of charges that he allowed his officers to take part in atrocities and failed to stop militia members from killing civilians.
Soon after, another court acquitted two army colonels, an army major and a police major and a retired army colonel. “The defendants have not been proved guilty and therefore should be acquitted of all charges,” Judge Cicut Sutiarso told the court.
After the acquittals, human rights activists renewed calls for the U.N. to establish an independent human rights tribunal to bring perpetrators of the killings to justice.
“The crimes committed in East Timor during 1999 were of such a serious nature that they cannot go unpunished, but the prospect of Indonesia being able to fulfill its responsibility to deliver a credible and effective justice process is now remote,” Amnesty International and the monitoring group said.
The rights groups said the prosecution did not present evidence that reflected “the widespread and systematic nature” of the crimes and failed to address the role of the Indonesian security forces in setting up and supporting the militias.
“Key evidence regarding the direct involvement of the Indonesian security forces in committing serious crimes was not presented to the court,” the groups said.
The trials were also hampered because victims and witnesses in East Timor were not promised what they considered to be adequate protection and refused to travel to Indonesia to testify.