Sat, Nov 06, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Former governor of East Timor to go free after court overturns conviction

AP , JAKARTA

The Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Jakarta's former governor of East Timor for his role in the 1999 violence there -- a ruling critics said yesterday underlined Indonesia's unwillingness to punish anyone for the carnage.

Abilio Jose Soares was the first -- and remains the only -- Indonesian official to be punished over the bloodshed that accompanied East Timor's break from 24 years of Indonesia rule following a UN-sponsored referendum.

He was expected to be released within days, dismaying rights activists who have called on Jakarta to punish those responsible when vengeful Indonesian troops and militia proxies killed up to 2,000 people and destroyed much of the tiny territory after the vote.

Soares -- who is ethnic East Timorese -- was found guilty in 2002 of failing to prevent the violence and began serving a three-year sentence in July this year, but filed a judicial review of his case at the Supreme Court.

The court, which sits behind closed doors, ruled in his favor, saying he had no security role in the province, said his attorney Juan Felix Tampubolon.

"My lawyers are bringing the ruling later on today," Soares told reporters by mobile phone from his cell in Jakarta. "I should be out of here by Monday."

"I have always said, and will continue to say until the world ends, that I am innocent," he said, declining further comment until he had seen the ruling.

Indonesia came under intense pressure to punish those responsible for the 1999 violence, and charged 18 ex-officials, most of them Indonesian police and military officials, with human rights crimes in a specially convened tribunal.

Twelve of the defendants were acquitted. Three others have had their sentences overturned on appeal. Appeals in the cases of two remaining defendants are expected soon.

Soares has received sympathy from some lawmakers and government officials in East Timor, including President Xanana Gusmao. They claim he was made a scapegoat for acquitted military officers with a more direct role in the bloodshed. All those found not guilty were non-ethnic East Timorese.

Still, East Timorese rights activists were angered by Soares' release.

"This decision shows that the Indonesian government is protecting its ex-officials and that the culture of impunity still exists," said Jose Luis Oliveira, who heads Yayasan HAK, the country's leading rights organization. "Soares joined with the military in forming the militias that killed the independence activists."

The trials in Jakarta have been dismissed as a farce, and critics have called on the United Nations to convene an international tribunal to try those responsible.

East Timor's government does not support an international tribunal, saying that good relations with its former occupying power and massive neighbor are more important.

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