The final article written by Sander Thoenes before he was murdered in East Timor a decade ago on Monday was headlined: “Military’s power undimmed by humiliations.”
And Indonesian human rights activists say the same headline could be written today. The culture of impunity over past abuses that the Financial Times’ Jakarta correspondent was pointing to remains very much in place.
“The roots of the culture of impunity are still very strong,” said Usman Hamid, head of the non-governmental Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (known as Kontras). He added that officials of the ruling elite seemed to have “very limited” respect for the rule of law. “There’s been virtually no progress in the last 10 years.”
Thoenes’s case is a glaring example of this. In November 2002, East Timor’s prosecutor-general, based on work carried out by the UN-led serious crimes unit in the country, indicted two members of Indonesia’s military – Major Jacob Sarosa and Lieutenant Camilo dos Santos – over the 30-year-old’s death.
They were charged with 15 counts of crimes against humanity for 20 murders and other acts they and soldiers under their command in Battalion 745 had allegedly committed as they withdrew from East Timor following the territory’s overwhelming vote for independence from Indonesia after 24 years of brutal occupation.
According to the indictment, they ran into Thoenes as they drove through Becora, a suburb of the capital, Dili. Thoenes, who spoke Indonesian and had been to East Timor several times, had arrived in Dili only a few hours earlier. He was replacing a colleague and wanted to investigate reports of alleged atrocities by the Indonesian military and their local militias.
After leaving his bags at a hotel, Thoenes hired a motorcycle and driver and headed to Becora. There, the indictment says they came across men in uniforms, also on motorbikes. Thoenes’s driver turned to flee but the soldiers gave chase and shot at them. Their motorbike fell and the driver escaped. But Thoenes did not.
The indictment describes how he is alleged to have died. “Battalion 745 soldiers …carried Thoenes to the side of the road. Two soldiers, including Lt Camilo dos Santos, pointed their guns at Thoenes as he lay on the ground. Sander Robert Thoenes was then shot once in the chest and, as a result of that gunshot, he died.”
Neither man has been formally investigated, let alone prosecuted. Maj Sarosa’s whereabouts are unknown but it is thought he is still in the Indonesian army. The military declined to say when, or even if, he had left the army.
Lt dos Santos is now a captain serving in West Timor, part of Indonesia. He said: “No comment, no comment,” and hung up the phone when contacted about the case by the FT last week.
Jakarta’s refusal to pursue the case is unequivocal. Hassan Wirajuda, the foreign minister, who refused to attend the 10th commemoration of the referendum until the East Timorese released an Indonesian from jail, said last week: “I can assure [you], on behalf of the government of Indonesia, we are not interested to reopen the case. This is part of our decision not to open old wounds – part of a dark chapter of our joint history with [East] Timor.”
This view contrasts sharply with the attitude of José Ramos-Horta, the East Timorese president. He told the FT last month that the killers of Thoenes should be brought to justice, as should the murderers of six journalists working for Australian media who were killed in 1975 when Indonesia invaded East Timor.
Five of these men were killed in the small border town of Balibo. This month, after decades of inaction, the Australian police said they had begun a war crimes investigation into their deaths after an Australian coroner ruled that they had died unlawfully.
Jakarta reacted with surprise, in spite of being warned about the move, which came weeks after Balibo an award-winning film,, about the killings was released in Australia.
In the wake of the violence surrounding the 1999 East Timor referendum, Jakarta did form a human rights tribunal for East Timor.
None of the most senior generals was tried, and all of the 20 people prosecuted – during a process that international observers described as seriously flawed – were acquitted or freed on appeal.
Indonesia and East Timor instead settled their differences through a truth and friendship commission, which did not recommend any prosecutions and which satisfied few Timorese.
People including Mr Hamid believe that there is little hope in the short- to medium-term of the atmosphere changing, particularly as Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president who starts his second five-year term next month, is a retired general.
“Indonesia’s justice system is still under the direction of the executive,” said Mr Hamid. “And at the moment its position on abuses in East Timor and elsewhere is very clear.”
The murder of Munir Thalib, Mr Hamid’s predecessor as head of Kontras, is another example of the continuing impunity. He was poisoned on a flight to Amsterdam in 2004, and Mr Yudhoyono vowed to convict his killers. But the perpetrators, who allegedly have links to state intelligence, remain unidentified.
Mr Hamid has not completely given up hope. “The new political generation is starting to change its mindset,” he said. “So in another 10 years we might see some movement.”
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