Wed, May 21, 2003 - Page 9 News List

East Timor tries to strike a balance

A UN-sponsored commission is looking to avoid violence while ensuring those who committed crimes are punished


Cancio dos Santos readily admits he joined pro-Jakarta militias and torched three homes in East Timor when it voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999.

But instead of being sent to jail, the 30-year-old farmer has been forgiven after apologizing to his victims during a recent truth and reconciliation meeting.

"There won't be a problem in the future," said Maumeta's village chief, Silvin Ribeiro dos Santos. "The bad feelings toward him have vanished. People don't want to carry this hatred forward."

In some countries, dos Santos's case might be seen as a miscarriage of justice.

But in East Timor, which yesterday celebrated its first anniversary as an independent nation, it is a small victory in the country's battle to balance calls for justice with the realities of prosecuting the thousands responsible for its bloody past.

The work of the UN-sponsored Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation has been widely praised as a good way to dole out justice in war-torn countries where legal systems are often unable to cope with the volume of cases.

The UN, which administered East Timor in its run-up to independence on May 20 last year, established two systems to provide justice for crimes linked to the 1999 violence.

The Serious Crimes Unit investigates and indicts those responsible for the most serious offenses -- murder, rape, torture and forced displacement. They are then prosecuted in court.

Lesser crimes like arson, robbery and theft are handled by the commission.

The Indonesian military along with their militia proxies laid waste to much of East Timor when it voted overwhelmingly to break from Jakarta in a UN-sponsored referendum in 1999.

More than 1,500 people were killed, 250,000 were forced from their homes and much of the county's infrastructure was sacked.

Top Indonesian military officials believed ultimately responsible for the violence are beyond the reach of the East Timor panels, because Jakarta has said it would not extradite any of them.

After intense international pressure, Indonesia agreed to put on trial 18 Indonesian military and government officials for their role in the bloodshed, which only stopped after international peacekeepers arrived.

But the Jakarta trials have been widely criticized as a farce, with only five of the defendants convicted. They all remain free on appeal.

In East Timor, the reconciliation commission has completed 200 hearings across the country in the past year, and plans to dispatch with another 1,000 cases next year.

There are more than 20 similar commissions in other countries with violent pasts -- like Chile, South Africa and Sierra Leone -- but East Timor's is the only one that can dole out justice.

"If not for this, the victim could remain angry and it could cause further problems," said Patrick Burgess, chief U.N legal adviser to the commission. "The purpose of this is to avoid future violence."

The hearings incorporate many traditional customs and beliefs.

Coconut water is sprinkled to purify the ground, and a chicken is sacrificed and its entrails then read to determine if the hearing should continue.

Defendants are made to sit opposite their victims, acknowledge their crimes and ask for forgiveness. Victims are given an opportunity to explain their suffering and question the defendant.

Villagers and victims then join the commission in handing down a sentence -- ranging from an apology to rebuilding burnt homes.

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