Humanitarian agencies and the independence movement have widely varying estimates of the numbers of civilians killed since the referendum four weeks ago, ranging from a few hundred to 25,000.
At a meeting in Geneva today, the UN Human Rights Commission is expected to pass a resolution calling on the Indonesian government's own human rights commission to take part in the investigation of atrocities committed by the Indonesian military during its campaign of terror and intimidation in East Timor.
The Indonesian National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas Ham), which was set up by the former Indonesian dictator, President Suharto, and is lead by a retired Indonesian general and a senior member of the ruling Golkar party, is to be included after Asian members of the UN commission blocked previous, stronger, resolutions. The new resolution also calls for the participation of Asian experts, likely to be from neighbouring countries traditionally deferential to Indonesia.
"It's an absolute joke, a complete whitewash," one UN official told The Independent. Lucia Withers, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International, said: "To have Indonesians carry out an investigation into violations by their own army will cause East Timorese even more trauma than they have suffered already. It would be really insulting at this stage."
Meanwhile, in East Timor, the evidence of crimes against humanity - and so the chance of successful prosecutions - is literally rotting away because of inadequate resources. Today, UN civilian policemen will set to work on a maggot-filled well in East Timor's capital, Dili, where an unknown number of bodies lie in the grounds of what is believed to have been a torture centre run by army-backed militia groups.
"The need for forensic experts is very, very urgent," David Wimhurst, spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in East Timor (Unamet) said. "Neither Interfet [International Force East Timor] nor Unamet is able to do this properly at the moment. It is crucial that investigative teams come into Dili as soon as possible."
Two bodies were exhumed from grave sites at the Dili Technical College yesterday.The first was that of an old man, covered up where he was found last Wednesday by local people, who said his body had appeared chewed.
The second grave contained the lower half of a corpse, severed at the belly - no head, no arms, no shoulders or chest. Dogs might have caused the mutilations to the old man, but not even a very big dog can slice a human body across the middle. There was another grave near by, our guides told us; in the neighbouring jungle were six more. These men were murdered, probably as they made a trip down from the mountains to gather food for their families; the chances are good that their murderers were still close at hand. But justice is a long way off.
When Nato went into Kosovo, teams of police, forensic scientists and lawyers from the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague were at work within days, sealing off and cataloguing mass grave sites. In East Timor, a few harassed policemen have the task of exhuming the bodies and collecting what evidence they can.
Physically, the task is revolting - after days or weeks exposed in the tropical heat the bodies are putrefied and maggot-ridden. More seriously, the civilian policemen lack the forensic training needed for an investigation that would stand up in an international court. Already crime scenes have been compromised by the well-intentioned people who have covered the bodies.
"Not more," said one policeman yesterday when told of the bodies in the technical college. "I've already got 14 dead bodies to look after. I can't deal with any more."Reuse content