East Timor truth aims to heal wounds

DILI, East Timor, Jan 21

(Reuters) - East Timor opened a truth and reconciliation commission on Monday in a move to heal the wounds of the tiny territory's traumatised past.

The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation is expected to expose widespread human rights abuses committed during Indonesia's often brutal 24-year rule over the former Portuguese colony.

"We want to learn from the lessons of the past in order to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future, but at the same time, we wish to open the door of forgiveness and acceptance for those who were caught in the vicious cycle of violence," de facto foreign minister and Nobel peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta said.

Seven Timorese national commissioners, including a former political prisoner, a Catholic priest and a nurse, were sworn in at a former U.N. compound in the capital Dili.

The commission's first task will be training around 30 regional commissioners to run six regional offices.

The commission will be in force for two years, though there is a provision for a six-month extension.

It will also play an important role in establishing a record of crimes committed during Indonesia's rule of the former Portuguese colony and events surrounding the bloody independence vote in 1999. It also aims to lessen the load on East Timor's overburdened courts.

Pro-Jakarta militia laid waste to East Timor after the overwhelming vote to break away from Indonesia.

Much of the territory was reduced to a charred ruin and almost a third of the 800,000-strong population was herded across the border into squalid refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor.

The commission will have no judicial function, but it will have extensive powers to investigate crimes and to hand over evidence from any investigation to the courts in Dili.

It will deal with lesser crimes, including arson, harassment and minor destruction of property and livestock but will refer more serious crimes such as murder and rape to the courts.

East Timor is currently administered by the United Nations and will become formally independent on May 20.

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