The slaying of five Australia-based journalists by Indonesian forces in East Timor in 1975 was deliberate and probably ordered by senior officers who may have committed war crimes, a coroner concluded yesterday.
The finding stokes the long-running controversy surrounding the case by contradicting the Indonesian and Australian governments' official version of events: that the journalists were killed accidentally in crossfire between Indonesian troops and East Timorese defenders.
It also strains diplomatic ties because it names three former top officers of Indonesia's special military forces as likely ordering the killings, and suggests they should face possible war crimes charges.
The Indonesian government said the finding did nothing to change its view that the case is closed -- signaling that Jakarta would fight any attempt to extradite the former officers to be tried in Australia.
New South Wales Deputy Coroner Dorelle Pinch, who heard evidence from witnesses and saw secret intelligence documents during the six-week inquest, does not have the power to file charges but said she would refer the case to the attorney general because she believes war crimes may have been committed.
Australian Attorney General Phillip Ruddock said he would forward Pinch's recommendations to police and prosecutors who have responsibility for investigating and compiling war crimes charges.
Pinch investigated the death of Brian Peters, a 29-year-old British-born cameraman and crew member for an Australian TV network who went to Balibo to cover the anticipated Indonesian invasion of East Timor after it descended toward civil war following the end of Portuguese colonial rule. On Oct. 16, 1975, Indonesian special forces and their East Timorese proxies attacked the town.
Peters was "shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces ... to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo,'" Pinch found.
Pinch, who was required to make findings only in relation to Peters, said it was impossible to separate the death of one of the journalists from the others, and that her findings applied equally to all.
The other five were Briton Malcolm Rennie, 28, Australians Gregory Shackleton, 29, and Anthony Stewart, 21, and New Zealander Gary Cunningham, 27.