Conviction in East Timor Falls Short of Calls for Justice ; the First Case Connected to Violence after the 1999 Vote Shows the Challenges for International Courts

Article excerpt

Almost trembling as he awaits a decision, Joao Fernandes, barely literate and desperately poor, looked nothing like the cold-blooded killer described in the indictment against him.

Last Thursday, Mr. Fernandes became the first person to be brought to justice for the violent rampage by the Indonesian military and its militia proxies after East Timor's vote for independence in 1999.

His 12-year sentence - as opposed to the 25-year maximum - came in exchange for a guilty plea and a promise to provide evidence against his commanding officers. He admitted to killing one man, whose wife and daughter witnessed the act, and to participating in one of the worst massacres of the post-referendum violence.

But no one in East Timor, thirsty for justice after a 24-year occupation, is satisfied with the result. "We reject this verdict," said Catalina Pereira, the victim's daughter, outside the courthouse. "So many men were slaughtered, and this is it?"

The dissatisfaction of Ms. Pereira and thousands of other East Timorese illustrates how the effort to build a credible international justice system is faltering across the globe. A combination of weak political will, high costs, and poor coordination are hampering justice efforts from East Timor to the former Yugoslavia.

UN member states have historically been reluctant to build human rights components into the first stages of peacekeeping missions. When an Australian-led force arrived in East Timor in September 1999, it did not bring forensic investigators or orders to seek out and arrest perpetrators of the crimes that had been committed during the month.

The arriving peacekeepers' first priority was to avoid casualties. In some cases they even escorted Indonesian soldiers and militia leaders to the border with Indonesian West Timor - where they are now beyond the reach of the prosecution.

"This is a mistake that can't be corrected," says Aniceto Gutteres, director of the East Timor Human Rights Foundation.

Indeed Battalion 745, the Indonesian Army unit that UN investigators believe murdered former Monitor contributor Sander Thoenes and at least 20 other people in the two weeks before it pulled out of the territory, continued the killings even after Australian troops had landed in Dili.

It's a familiar pattern: A reluctance to expose peacekeepers to danger allowed criminals to escape in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. International tribunals on the crimes in those countries have since handed down indictments, but many of the worst offenders are at large, either in friendly countries or in hiding.

Fernandes is in custody because he came home after, he says, his wife was raped by a fellow militia member. All of the men he has promised to testify against are in Indonesia, unlikely to make the same mistake and return. Leaders of the more than two dozen militia groups, with one exception, are likewise in Indonesia.

"Joao killed and he admitted it," says Olga Barreto, his court- appointed lawyer. "But he's just a small fry. He didn't have a plan to destroy East Timor. The ones who had a plan to destroy this country were the Indonesian military."

Dozens of survivors of the massacre Fernandes participated in have provided evidence. …