Serious Crimes

Against the People of East Timor

17 June 2003 -- Hera, East Timor

The other day (Friday, 13 June), we visited the Serious Crimes Unit. They are currently pursuing justice for victims of crimes committed in 1999 in connection with the referendum and the militia activity following it. They investigate the crimes, indict those alleged responsible, and then try those accused persons they are able to locate. An overwhelming majority of the likely criminals are at large in Indonesia and unlikely to return any time soon. Those found and caught are tried primarily for crimes against humanity: rape and murder. The court seems well run and the staff of international prosecutors, defenders, and judges committed to finding justice for the people of East Timor.

After speaking with a fellow from public relations, an investigator, and a prosecutor, we had the fortune to speak with two forensic anthropologists currently examining the remains of people killed in 1999. With the explanations provided by the scientists, the bones -- everything decomposes within a few months of burial in this hot, humid climate -- really told a story:

One set of bones told of a particular grim end for the poor man: the fingers were severed, the wrist sliced nearly off, and the elbow sliced deeply, defensive wounds all. One foot was nearly severed, hanging by only a few ligaments; the other was cut nearly through. The hip bone was punctured completely through with a corresponding slice in the vertebrae. That poor fellow likely met his end at the hands of several assailants wielding heavy katana, machete.

Another skeleton was fully intact except for a missing piece of skull, blown out when a bullet exited. The entry point was at the base of the back of the head, just where an executioner would place a pistol.

A third skeleton was nearly intact with only a cracked rib as an apparent injury. However, upon closer examination, the crack evidently started as a cut likely caused by a katana.

The scientists had diligently sorted out three or four skeletons previously mixed together. The victims had been buried in shallow graves, and upon discovering their whereabouts, the respective families had claimed what they thought was the remains for their particular relatives. However, the bodies where too degraded and hacked up for the families to accurately collect the bones. Thus one set originally hat three long leg bones, another had the wrong jawbone.

Discussing his previous experience in a district, the publicity person stated that people were very anxious to find justice for the crimes committed against their communities in 1999 and before. At times, I wonder how they can be distracted from the overwhelming task of rebuilding the infrastructure of the country and forming a working democracy by such an ephemeral concept of justice. But upon seeing the story told by the bones in the morgue, it is easier to understand their reluctance to just move on while the perpetrators of such horrendous crimes remain free and likely receiving pensions from the Indonesian government.

The court has handed down a handful of sentences, ranging from ten to twenty years. Over fifty persons have been indicted for crimes against humanity including rape and murder, but they remain at large.


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