In The Shadows Of East Timor's Independence Celebrations

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On the 10th anniversary of East Timor’s vote for independence last month, the new nation’s leaders abrogated its constitution to meet Indonesia’s wishes by illegally releasing Maternus Bere, the Suai militia leader indicted for crimes against humanity — including the Suai Church Massacre of 6 September 1999.

A week later, on the 10th anniversary of that massacre, people gathered in front of the Indonesian Embassy in Dili to commemorate the event and urge that Maternus Bere be put on trial in East Timor. This week Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who has been criticised within East Timor for his part in freeing Bere, attended a mass in Suai in memory of Bere’s victims.

In 1999, Maternus Bere was the Suai Commander of the Laksaur Militia which terrorised the people of the area; he took part in the killing of more than 30 unarmed civilians and three priests in Suai Church on 6 September 1999. Civilians had taken refuge in the church when they were attacked. The exact death toll for the Suai Church Massacre is unknown but Bere’s involvement is not in dispute.

In February 2003, the UN/Democratic Republic of East Timor (RDTL) Serious Crimes Unit issued an indictment charging Egidio Manek (another local militia leader), Maternus Bere and others with "crimes against humanity: murder, extermination, enforced disappearance, torture, inhumane acts, rape, deportation and persecution." Arrest warrants were issued by East Timorese judges for these crimes, including the abduction of Juliana "Alola" dos Santos, the namesake of the Alola Foundation, from the church.

Alola was hiding in the church after it was attacked by the militias; she was forcibly removed to West Timor by Manek, who declared her to be his wife. According to historian Clinton Fernandes, Bere is criminally responsible for his role in the abduction, rape and sexual slavery of Alola.

Although warrants were issued by the court and sent to the Indonesian Government, as well as being circulated by Interpol, more than 300 of the 391 people indicted by the Serious Crimes Unit — including Maternus Bere — have enjoyed sanctuary in Indonesia. Bere lived openly in West Timor.

In early August 2009, he entered East Timor and was recognised by local people in Suai. The Timor-Leste National Police (PNTL) arrested Bere on 8 August, and he was subsequently transferred to Becora prison in Dili to await trial.

While East Timor was celebrating the 10th anniversary of its independence referendum, however, high-ranking RDTL officials illegally ordered prison authorities to release Maternus Bere to the Indonesian Ambassador to East Timor. To my knowledge, he remains either in the Indonesian Embassy or the Ambassador’s residence in Dili, awaiting transfer to Indonesia where he is expected to be freed. Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda refused to travel to Dili for the anniversary celebrations until Bere was transferred to Indonesian control.

The decision to release Bere was reportedly driven by President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao; the Minister of Justice Lucia Lobato and other officials and civil servants reluctantly cooperated with this blatant political interference in the judicial system. Only a judge can order the release of an indicted criminal from prison and no judge was willing to issue such an order.

On the day Bere was released, 30 August 2009, Ramos-Horta delivered a wide-ranging address to the nation as part of the anniversary celebrations. Although he did not mention Bere by name, he declared that there would be no international tribunal in East Timor and asked the United Nations to disband its only remaining justice process in East Timor, the Serious Crimes Investigation Team.

Ramos-Horta’s call to wind down international justice processes in East Timor stands in stark opposition to the analysis of NGOs like Amnesty International. Indeed, in August 2009, Amnesty International issued a report entitled We Cry for Justice. Impunity persists 10 years on in Timor–Leste which explicitly appealed to the UN Security Council to establish an international tribunal for East Timor.

As the anniversary celebrations continued, three students were arrested for peacefully holding an impromptu press conference calling for justice at the entrance of Hotel Timor. They were released without charges after being jailed for 72 hours.

The students weren’t the only people to protest Ramos-Horta’s decision to downgrade justice processes. The morning after Bere was turned over to Indonesian custody, a presidential delegation from the United States met separately with East Timor’s President and Prime Minister and raised concerns about the Government’s approach to justice and accountability for serious crimes in 1999 — including the release of Bere. That afternoon, solidarity activists from around the world met with Ramos-Horta to make the case for justice. He told them that the arrest of Maternus Bere could have been a case of mistaken identity and did not give any further reason for his release.

On 1 September, the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) issued a brief statement about crimes against humanity. Although UNMIT did not comment on the specific circumstances concerning Maternus Bere, the statement reiterated that "there must be no impunity for crimes against humanity". "Concrete steps need to be taken to ensure full accountability, to end impunity and to provide reparations to victims in accordance with international human rights standards and principles," it said. 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, weighed in too. She wrote to Ramos-Horta  expressing her "deep concern" about the decision to release Maternus Bere and described it as "extremely regrettable as it has grave consequences for the prospects of accountability for the serious crimes which occurred in 1999".

Victims and families of victims from all 13 districts of East Timor met in Dili in the week after the referendum anniversary to form a new national association to campaign for justice. People from across the country expressed sadness and disgust that their leaders had sacrificed the rule of law in the interests of diplomacy. Representatives from Suai repeatedly asked how they could explain Ramos-Horta’s decision about Bere to their neighbours and families.

More than 100 prominent East Timorese citizens have signed an open letter to their leaders protesting Bere’s release and asking the leaders to explain its legal basis. The release of Bere has also become a controversy in East Timor’s National Parliament. Opposition parties have issued protest statements and a Fretilin walkout on 7 September dismantled quorum and ended the parliamentary session. The following day, Parliament rejected President Ramos-Horta’s request to travel to the United States and Europe in protest against involvement in Bere’s release. At the time of publishing, the President was threatening to resign unless the Parliament reversed the decision.

And on the morning of the anniversary of the Suai Church Massacre, a few people dressed in black brought flowers and candles to the front of the Indonesian Embassy in Dili, where Maternus Bere was believed to be residing. Over the next two hours, they were joined by more than 100 others who shared their prayers, sorrow and anger that leaders of their independent nation, achieved at great human cost culminating in the referendum 10 years ago, had violated its own constitution and rule of law to satisfy Indonesia’s desires.

For updates on the situation involving Maternus Bere, check the La’o Hamutuk website. This article has been edited since it was published.

New Matilda

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