Timor rebel leader gets life sentence: Indonesian court imposes heavy penalty on guerrilla chief

AFTER BEING sentenced by an Indonesian court to life imprisonment yesterday, the East Timorese guerrilla leader, Xanana Gusmao, shouted: 'Viva Timor L'Este]' - long live East Timor, the rallying cry of his independence movement, and then shook hands with the judges.

The capture of Mr Gusmao, 46, leader of the Fretilin movement, may have dealt a fatal blow to resistance against Indonesian rule of the former Portuguese colony. He faced possible execution for illegal possession of weapons and advocating the independence of East Timor, but the prosecution sought a life sentence, probably to avoid international controversy.

'The reason the punishment is so heavy is that the defendant's actions disturbed stability in East Timor,' the judge, Hieronymus Godang, told the court in Dili, the capital of East Timor. Mr Gusmao, looking grim and untidy through the seven-hour reading of the charges against him, was surrounded by heavy security.

Indonesia has been condemned by human rights organisations, with the US-based group Asia Watch accusing the authorities of denying Mr Gusmao a fair trial. The separatist leader, who does not speak Indonesian, was first told his 55-page defence statement would have to be translated from Portuguese, then was prevented from continuing after reading the first couple of pages, because the judges considered it 'irrelevant'.

In the statement Mr Gusmao said he planned to go on a hunger strike. He continued: 'I reject the competence of any Indonesian tribunal to judge me and much less the jurisdiction of this court, installed by force of arms and criminal acts.' Under international law, he and all Timorese were Portuguese citizens, he said, although he considered himself a citizen of an independent East Timor.

Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, shortly after Portugal had withdrawn, and annexed it the following year. Up to 200,000 East Timorese are believed to have died from execution, disease and starvation in the wake of the occupation, which is not recognised by the United Nations.

In recent years Jakarta has sought to wear down opposition to its rule by encouraging development of the territory, but heavy-handed military action has fuelled resistance among the Portuguese-speaking East Timorese, most of whom are Roman Catholic in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. International attention returned to the island in November 1991 after the military opened fire on demonstrators in Dili. Witnesses said up to 180 people were killed.

Mr Gusmao, who has led Fretilin for most of the 17 years of Indonesian occupation, was accused by the authorities of organising the demonstration. He was captured a year later in the basement of a house in Dili.