East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta yesterday said Indonesian troops tortured and mutilated the “Balibo Five” foreign journalists whose 1975 killing has sparked calls for war crimes charges.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner made the allegation at the Melbourne launch of the thriller Balibo, which depicts the deaths of the five Australian-based journalists during Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor.
Ramos-Horta, a rebel commander at the time, said he looked into the deaths of the five soon after they were killed in the border town of Balibo. Indonesia says the journalists were killed accidentally.
“They were not just executed, from what I remember researching at the time, back in ’75, ’76, at least one of them was brutally, brutally tortured,” Ramos-Horta told reporters.
He added that the film was largely accurate but its makers were unable to depict the gruesome nature of the killings because the scenes of torture and mutilation by the Indonesian military would be too shocking.
Jakarta has always maintained that the reporters died in crossfire as Indonesian troops fought East Timorese Fretilin rebels, a version of events accepted by successive Australian governments.
An Australian coroner found in 2007 that the journalists died as they tried to surrender to Indonesian forces and recommended war crimes charges be brought against the killers, but the inquest heard no allegations of torture.
One of the alleged killers was special forces captain Mohammad Yunus Yosfiah, who later became a minister in the Indonesian government.
Ramos-Horta said Indonesian officers ordered troops to burn the bodies to conceal the crime.
“They knew what the consequences would be, so they had to burn any evidence that those people had been captured alive and then were brutally murdered,” Ramos-Horta said. “That’s why they burned the bodies, to cover the evidence of torture and mutilations.”
The “Balibo Five” — Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, Britons Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie and New Zealander Gary Cunningham — were covering Indonesia’s advance into East Timor for Australian TV networks.
A sixth journalist, Australian Roger East, who went to East Timor to investigate their fate, was killed in the Timorese capital of Dili six weeks later when Indonesian forces captured the city.
Ramos-Horta said Indonesia had changed beyond recognition in the past decade.
“It is better. Indonesian democracy today is one of the most inspiring in the Southeast Asia region,” he said.
“Indonesians themselves are the ones who have to deal with their own past,” he said.