Australians covered up East Timor terror plot

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The Australian government deliberately concealed evidence that senior Indonesian generals were plotting violence in East Timor, even after the massacres that followed the vote on the territory's independence in 1999.

The Australian government deliberately concealed evidence that senior Indonesian generals were plotting violence in East Timor, even after the massacres that followed the vote on the territory's independence in 1999.

From intercepted telephone and radio messages, the Australian intelligence agencies knew the Indonesian military was trying to sabotage the August 1999 referendum on independence, according to a Sydney newspaper.

They knew at least six months before the referendum that the murderous pro- Indonesian militias guilty of the worst atrocities were being organised on orders from the highest members of the military hierarchy.

The intelligence intercepts also revealed that when the attempt to prevent a vote for independence failed, the Indonesian generals organised the rampage of violence in which East Timor's towns were destroyed and a third of its population deported.

Two and a half years after the violence, Indonesia's first trials of suspects started in Jakarta yesterday.

Eighteen men, including three generals, face charges of crimes against humanity in connection with four murderous attacks on East Timorese supporters of independence. But the most senior generals, who planned and directed the atrocities from Jakarta, have never been brought to justice.

Canberra said nothing, rather than sharing the information it had with its allies or with United Nations investigators, because it wanted to conceal the extent of its intelligence-gathering capabilities from the Indonesians.

The Australian government insisted yesterday that no "raw" intelligence material had been sent to UN officials investigating the violence, but that "information based on classified intelligence" had been passed on.

According to the report in the Sydney Morning Herald, senior Australian defence officials have leaked the intercepts because they are disgusted with Canberra's decision to collude in covering up crimes against humanity.

The newspaper's international editor, Hamish McDonald, an authority on Indonesia's brutal 23-year occupation of East Timor, said he was shown transcripts of two kinds of intercepts – "Secret Spoke", which refers to ordinary telephone calls, and "Top Secret Umbra", meaning scrambled or encrypted conversations. As early as February 1999, they revealed that two units of Indonesia's special forces, codenamed Venus and Tribuana, went to East Timor for undercover operations. The intercepts recorded telephone conversations between the notorious Timorese militia leader, Eurico Guterres, and Indonesian officers. In one of them, the military commander in East Timor, Colonel Tono Suratman at the time, told Mr Guterres not to contact him directly but via another officer. In August, a major-general named Zacky Anwar Makarim told a contact that he would "take care" of Mr Guterres if he tried to switch sides.

In September 1999, as an Australian-led multinational force was arriving in the ruins of East Timor after a fortnight of violence there, the Indonesian military telephoned one of their Timorese supporters to tell him about assassination squads called "Kiper-9", which were hunting down deserters and supporters of independence.

Three commanders, including Colonel Suratman and the chief of police, Brigadier General Timbul Silaen, face charges in the specially constituted human rights court. But other generals implicated by the leaks – including General Anwar and the former security minister, General Feisal Tanjung – appear to have escaped punishment.

The proceedings against General Silaen and the former governor of East Timor, Abilio Soares, began yesterday. "The defendant knew about or ignored information that his underlings ... were conducting gross human rights violations such as murders as part of wide and systematic attacks on the civilian population," read the charges against Mr Soares.

General Silaen was accused of responsibility for "gross human rights violations that constitute a crime against humanity, in the form of killings that were carried out as part of wide and systematic attacks which were known by the defendant as being directed at the civilian population". Both men denied the charges.

But there are concerns that the courts are mainly designed to head off the threat of an international war crimes tribunal, like that created in The Hague for the former Yugoslavia.

The Jakarta tribunals are only allowed to deal with crimes committed in the months of April and September 1999. Crimes against humanity are punishable with the death penalty, but if there are convictions they are expected to result in much lighter sentences.

One measure of the impunity enjoyed by the defendants can be seen in their careers since September 1999, when the Indonesian army abandoned East Timor in the wake of the atrocities it committed.

Many of those believed to be most closely involved in the violence have flourished professionally. Two of those charged have since been promoted from colonel to general. Apart from his promotion, General Silaen presently leads a special commission designed to defeat corruption in the police.

On the other hand, the past few days have seen surprisingly strong action in the Indonesian courts against figures assumed to enjoy the protection of money and the establishment. Last week, Tommy Suharto, the son of the former Indonesian dictator, was charged with ordering the assassination of a judge, and a former Timorese militia man who killed a UN peace-keeper from New Zealand was give a six-year sentence from a Jakarta court.

A week ago, an Indonesian team reported "significant" progress in the investigation of the murder of Sander Thoenes, a Financial Times correspondent, killed by Indonesian soldiers in September 1999. On Wednesday, the governor of the central bank received a three-year sentence for corruption.

But the East Timorese are cynical about the chances of genuine justice. "The East Timorese are united in their desire for an international tribunal," said Filomena dos Reis of the East Timor NGO Forum. "Over two decades of first-hand experience with Indonesian justice tells us the current ad-hoc court will not be meaningful."