DILI (Reuters) - An Indonesian man who was allegedly involved in crimes against humanity in East Timor when the country voted for independence has been released from a Dili prison, a United Nations spokesman said on Monday.
East Timor’s government under President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has attracted strong criticism from rights groups over its policy of pardoning convicted ex-militia and pursuing a conciliatory approach with Indonesia, its sprawling neighbour and former ruler.
Louis Gentile, the East Timor representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the release of Martenus Bere, who was wanted for militia attacks on pro-independence civilians, sent the wrong signals.
“His release is contrary to the Security Council resolutions which set up the U.N. mission in Timor Leste (East Timor) and completely undermines the principle of accountability for crimes against humanity globally,” Gentile told Reuters.
“This has global significance.”
A former Portuguese colony, East Timor was invaded in 1975 by Indonesia. An estimated 180,000 died during the occupation, and the U.N. estimates about 1,000 East Timorese died in the mayhem that surrounded the 1999 vote for independence.
According to a document archived on the website of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Bere was a member of a militia that attacked and killed pro-independence civilians, including priests, in September 1999, in what became known as the Suai massacre.
“He was believed to have been involved in directing the attack. He was not one of the junior ones, so that’s why this is so serious,” Gentile told Reuters.
CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
Bere was recently arrested near the Indonesian border on an outstanding warrant for crimes against humanity, but was released from Dili’s Becora prison on Sunday on instructions from Gusmao, Gentile told Reuters.
A spokesman for the East Timor government was unable to confirm immediately whether Bere had been released.
Indonesian news website Kapanlagi.com quoted West Nusa Tenggara governor Frans Lebu Raya saying that Bere had been released and was currently at the Indonesian embassy in Dili. The Indonesian embassy in Dili did not return calls from Reuters.
Damien Kingsbury, an expert on East Timor and Indonesian politics at Australia’s Deakin University, said Indonesia had been pushing for Bere’s release.
“This will ease tensions with Indonesia but increase domestic anger over impunity,” Kingsbury told Reuters.
East Timor has pursued much closer diplomatic and economic ties with Indonesia, its more prosperous neighbour. “No one denies that warm relations between Indonesia and East Timor is a good thing. But nevertheless, the issue of justice for crimes against humanity needs to be separated from the need for good relations. It is a complete distortion of priorities,” said Gentile.
Bere’s release coincided with the 10th anniversary celebration of East Timor’s vote for independence, as President Ramos-Horta awarded prizes to scores of activists for campaigning against human rights abuses.
On Friday, the president mounted a spirited defence of his decision to oppose a UN Crimes Tribunal in East Timor.
“I know what suffering is,” said Ramos-Horta, who lost four siblings in the conflict.
“But I repudiate the notion that we do not care about justice. Indonesian democracy has progressed. Indonesians are the ones who will bring justice to Indonesia, in their own time.”
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