Fri, 23 May 2003

Rights court acquit former East Timor military commander

Muninggar Sri Saraswati, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The ad hoc human rights tribunal acquitted on Thursday former East Timor Military commander Brig. Gen. Tono Suratman from charges of failing to prevent a spate of human rights abuses before and after the 1999 self-determination ballot in East Timor.

"The defendant, Tono Suratman, is not proven guilty of crimes against humanity as charged by the prosecutors," judge Andi Samsan Nganro said. The verdict was greeted by a thunderous round of applause by dozens of Army's Special Forces Kopassus members attending the trial.

The panel of five judges also ordered "the dignity and reputation of the defendant be restored to him" as he had been acquitted from all charges.

Tono, who had been promoted to the post of deputy Indonesian Military (TNI) spokesman, had been charged with crimes against humanity for failing to prevent bloodshed in the run-up, during, and after the East Timorese voted to break away from Indonesia on Aug. 30, 1999.

Thousands of military-backed militia members went on bloody rampages before and after the referendum, killing hundreds of civilians and laying waste to almost 80 percent of the infrastructure in the former 27th province of Indonesia.

The judges said Tono was not responsible for the violence at a church in Liquica on April 6, 1999, or at a residence in Dili on April 17, 1999.

"Before the election, the security order was the responsibility of the police," the verdict said.

A total of 20 people were killed at Liquica while 12 died in the attack on the residence of pro-independence leader Manuel Carrascalao in Dili.

The verdict, quoting testimonies from the former military chief, Gen. (ret) Wiranto, and former foreign affairs minister Ali Alatas, blamed former president B.J. Habibie for giving the Timorese the option of independence when the government was not ready to conduct the referendum.

Chief prosecutor Gabriel Simangungsong, who earlier sought a ten-year prison term for Tono, said on Thursday that he had not yet decided whether he would appeal the verdict. However, he said that the judges had failed to take the witnesses' testimonies into account.

Meanwhile, Tono thanked the judges for "a fair trial" and encouraged soldiers not to hesitate in performing their duties.

Tono's subordinates distributed press releases to journalists about Tono's opinion on the verdict. Tono had also prepared another press release, just in case the judges convicted him.

Tono was the 11th member of the police or military to be acquitted over the bloodshed in East Timor. Five people -- two army officers, a former Dili police chief, the former civilian governor and an ex-militia chief -- have been sentenced to jail. All are free pending appeals.

One general is still awaiting a verdict.

Human rights groups have labeled the court, which was set up amid international pressure, a sham.

Hendardi, the head of the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association, said that the verdict would make "the military become more powerful and arrogant".

"The trial was just for show, it is meant to preserve impunity and to protect the generals," he added.