Amnesties split leaders on eve of crucial poll

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2001, 12:00am

East Timor's president-in-waiting, Xanana Gusmao, yesterday restated his belief that amnesties should be considered for people who committed serious crimes.

But Dili's bishop, Nobel peace laureate Carlos Belo, disagrees, as do most victims of political violence in East Timor.

Whoever wins tomorrow's election for a constituent assembly to draw up a constitution, the amnesty issue is one of the most complicated facing East Timor.

'We must not say no, never to amnesty. We must consider how to practise, how to exercise justice in East Timor, but we should not throw amnesty out,' Mr Gusmao said.

He also was equivocal on the subject of whether an international tribunal should be set up to prosecute Indonesian soldiers and Timorese militia who wrecked East Timor and traumatised a generation during the pro-independence ballot two years ago.

In yesterday's Age newspaper in Australia, Bishop Belo wrote that a tribunal must be set up, adding that without a firm implementation of justice for the country's many victims, its future could not be assured.

'Justice cannot be provided simply or easily. One thing is certain, however, and that is that the future of East Timor depends on it,' Bishop Belo wrote.

'Justice for the people of East Timor requires that the perpetrators of the most serious crimes be identified and prosecuted.'

His view, rather than Mr Gusmao's, is shared by many victims of East Timor's violence. One such group is the Widows' Co-operative in Maliana, a town near the border with Indonesian West Timor, which was ransacked by Indonesia-backed militias and where hundreds of East Timorese were murdered.

'I know who killed my husband. He was a militia member. He came up to me and told me he had just killed my husband,' said Agusta da Silva, a 30-year old mother of two who looks twice her age.

'Yes I would testify against him, I know his name. There must be justice.

'Only if we have justice, if the militia is tried first, only then can I have no hard feelings in my heart. All this must go through the legal process.'

Vittoria da Silva found the burned body of her husband at a schoolhouse and says she knows the two men who murdered him.

'I am afraid they will come back and kill us too, but I want to see justice. I will testify,' she said.

A young activist in the Malian Centre for Human Rights, Diolinda, lost her father to the militia mobs in 1999.

'Everyone must be tried . . . everything is serious and everybody has to recognise this so it won't happen again,' she said.

'At first I was not willing to accept the militia back at all, but I have come to accept that if this country wants to stand on its own feet we also have to have reconciliation.'

One diplomat said yesterday Mr Gusmao's strong position in favour of reconciliation put him 'well ahead of his people'.

'It's probably due to his personality, his tolerance and desire to look to the future rather than to the past,' the diplomat said.