First trial for 1999 crimes against humanity opens in East Timor

First trial for 1999 crimes against humanity opens in East Timor

Eleven defendants went on trial in Dili today for allegedly committing crimes against humanity during the pre- and post-ballot violence in 1999, the first such case to be prosecuted in United Nations administered East Timor.

The Prosecutor for the Special Panel for Serious Crimes, Stuart Alford, told the court the defendants were accused of 13 murders committed in four separate incidents as well as the attack and burning of a number of villages and the subsequent deportation of their inhabitants. All of the incidents took place between April and September 1999 in Lautem District, at the eastern end of the island.

The Special Panel was established by the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) to investigate and prosecute serious crimes committed between January and October 1999.

The most notorious incident charged against the defendants occurred on 25 September, when a group of clergy, church workers, a journalist and a youth were ambushed and killed near the village of Verokoko.

Most of the 10 defendants present at today's hearing were members of the Team Alpha militia. The eleventh suspect, Syaful Anwar, was the second-in-command of the Indonesian military special forces (Kopassus) in Lautem and is still at large.

"Could anyone have participated in the actions of a militia group like Team Alpha without knowledge that such a group was committed to a campaign of violence against the population?" Mr. Alford asked. "These men knew, at the time, that the crimes they were committing were part of a wider campaign, not just by Team Alpha, not just in Lautem District, but in East Timor as a whole."

The defence was granted its motion to adjourn the trial until tomorrow so that the charges could be discussed with the defendants.

In other news, an assessment mission, led by the UN Security Coordination Office, arrived yesterday in West Timor for a week-long visit. The team will examine the security situation and make recommendations for the possible return of UN agencies, which had pulled out last year after the killings of three staff of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).