Timor truth commission sworn in to document quarter-century of abuses

DILI, East Timor, Jan 21

(AFP) - East Timor took its first formal step on the road to reconciliation with the inauguration of a truth and reconciliation commission Monday which will spend two years documenting a quarter-century of rights abuses, largely under Indonesian rule.

While it will not have the power to grant amnesties, the Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be able to provide immunity from prosecution to the perpetrators of less serious crimes if they fulfill a community reconciliation agreement.

The commission's mandate starts in April 1974 and covers a period of civil war after the departure of Portuguese colonisers and before Indonesia's invasion in December 1975.

Serious crimes like murder, rape and torture will remain the responsibility of the Serious Crimes Unit, supervised by the United Nations which has administered East Timor since its violent split from Indonesia in 1999.

Seven Timorese commissioners were sworn in Monday.  "The commissioners face an enormous challenge," Xanana Gusmao, the man seen as president-in-waiting of the near-independent territory, said at the inauguration ceremony.  "But... it has the support of the people, who will help the commission through their submissions, their moral courage and their hearts."

The UN's Transitional Administrator in East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, hailed the commission as a chance to give the East Timorese "an official ear to listen to their grievances and acknowledge their past suffering.

"It will bring together those who have been in conflict in the past and give them an opportunity for genuine and long-lasting reconciliation."

South Africa's former Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson sent messages which were read out at the ceremony.

"The search for truth and reconciliation is not a soft option but a huge challenge," said Tutu, recalling South Africa's truth commission. "It will often be painful and sometimes appear thankless. But it will also be uplifting and inspirational. The people of East Timor have had the wisdom to see that the cross of the past is the key to a future of peace and respect."

Robinson said the country's massive rebuilding efforts would be meaningless "unless you are able to heal the wounds of your spirit, individually and as a nation.

"It is only through justice, truth and reconciliation that you will be able to freely and genuinely move forward, in to the future, as a united nation."

Between 100,000 and 200,000 East Timorese are estimated to have died in the early years of Jakarta's occupation, many from starvation or disease.

Militias supported by the Indonesian army launched a brutal campaign before and after an August 1999 referendum in which almost 80 percent voted for independence.

Estimates of the number killed in the months surrounding the ballot range from 600 to 2,000. Towns including Dili were burned to the ground and vital infrastructure was destroyed.

De Mello said last week that the commission would "complement the formal judicial system and will deal with lesser criminal cases."

Any evidence the commission gathers of serious crimes will be referred to the Office of the Prosecutor General, he said.

The seven commissioners took an oath vowing to "promote reconciliation, national unity and peace." 

They will be trained by experts from the International Center for Transitional Justice which helped operate similar commissions in South Africa and Guatemala.

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Copyright 2001 Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor