Rights Activists Slam Indonesian President for Awarding Medal to Timor Ex-Militia Leader

Ronna Nirmala
Rights Activists Slam Indonesian President for Awarding Medal to Timor Ex-Militia Leader Former East Timorese militia leader Eurico Guterres (center) displays an Indonesian flag upon his release from Cipinang prison in Jakarta, April 7, 2008

Indonesian human rights groups criticized President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Friday for awarding the country’s second-highest medal to a former pro-Jakarta militia leader who was linked to alleged atrocities committed in East Timor during a vote for independence in 1999. 

Eurico Guterres, who opted for Indonesian citizenship after East Timor voted to break free from Jakarta rule in a United Nations-sponsored ballot 22 years ago, was among more than 330 people decorated with medals by Jokowi during a ceremony at the presidential palace on Thursday. The president handed out the honors as Indonesia prepared to mark its Independence Day on Aug. 17. 

A coalition of human rights activists and organizations called on Jokowi to withdraw the Bintang Jasa Utama, Indonesia’s second highest merit award, given to Guterres, 47.

“Awarding the medal to Eurico Guterres is a serious betrayal of humanity and morality and ignores justice for the victims,” they said in a statement.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 civilians died and another 500,000 were uprooted in violence surrounding the U.N.-backed referendum in East Timor, according to a U.N. report.

Indonesia invaded the territory that makes up the eastern half of Timor Island in December 1975, amid unrest that followed when Portugal abandoned its longtime colony in the Malay Archipelago. East Timor was born as the nation of Timor-Leste in 2002, after Indonesia eventually withdrew its occupying forces.

The medal was awarded to Guterres because he fought for East Timor’s continued integration within Indonesia, said Mohammad Mahfud MD, who chairs the government’s Council of Merits and Honors.

“Eurico Guterres, was a fighter on the side of the Republic of Indonesia when we developed East Timor as part of Indonesia,” said Mahfud MD, who is also the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs.

Guterres, known for his oratorical skills, led a pro-Jakarta militia group in East Timor called Aitarak. He now is a politician and member of Gerindra, a political party founded by Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.

Prabowo, the former son-in-law of President Suharto, Indonesia’s late dictator, is a retired military officer who commanded the army’s special forces (Kopassus), which human rights groups accused of committing atrocities during the occupation of East Timor. 

In 2002, a human rights court set up by Indonesia to try cases of abuses in East Timor convicted Guterres of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 10 years in prison for an attack on the house of Timorese independence leader Manuel Viegas Carrascalão. 

The Supreme Court upheld the sentence in 2006 but granted a subsequent case review request by Guterres and acquitted him in 2008, citing new evidence.

The tribunal also acquitted six military and police officers indicted by the human rights tribunal for their roles in East Timor’s bloodshed.

Visiting Indonesian President Joko Widodo is awarded the Grand Collar of the Order of Timor Leste by his Timorese counterpart, Taur Matan Ruak, in Dili, Jan. 26, 2016. [Antara via Reuters]

Aitarak militiamen, under the command of Guterres, attacked Carrascalão’s house, where more than 130 civilians had sought refuge after fighting between two opposing sides, according to human rights groups.

“Eurico Guterres just stood by. He did not try to stop the crowd under his command from attacking the house of Manuel Viegas Carrascalao,” said the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM), an Indonesian human rights organization.

Carrascalao’s son, Manuelito, and 11 other civilians died in the attack, according to the prosecutor at the Indonesian human rights tribunal. 

After the Supreme Court upheld the guilty verdict against him in 2006, Guterres said he had been made a scapegoat.

“I was declared guilty because I defended the Red and White,” he told the Tempo news magazine, referring to the colors of the Indonesian flag.

“Those who are innocent are sent to prison, while those who committed the crime are declared not guilty and walk free,” he said.  

The International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor, a panel set up by then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, concluded after an investigation in 2000 that the systematic and large-scale nature of the crimes warranted the establishment of an international human rights tribunal. 

Indonesia’s own National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) set up an inquiry team and named Indonesian and East Timorese military and civilian officials responsible for grave violations of human rights.

Rights group said that the Indonesian ad hoc tribunal was a sham because many senior military leaders believed to be responsible for the violence were not prosecuted, while questions were raised about the professionalism and impartiality of the prosecution. 

The tribunal convicted two East Timorese, including Guterres, and acquitted 10 other defendants, including civilian, military and police leaders.

The verdicts drew international criticism, including from U.N. officials, and prompted fresh calls for an international tribunal.

Ex-generals close to president

Despite Jokowi’s past pledge to resolve old human rights cases, he counts former generals with checkered human rights record among his closest aides. 

Wiranto, who was the armed forces chief at the time of the violence in East Timor, served as Jokowi’s chief security minister from 2016 to 2019 and is a member of the presidential advisory team.

Prabowo, when he was the general commanding Kopassus, was accused of kidnapping pro-democracy activists in the dying days of Suharto’s rule in 1998.

“This is a betrayal of the commitments he made when he took office" in 2014, said ELSAM researcher Miftah Fadhli.

“Jokowi … in 2019 also stated that the government would revive the truth commission for past cases of rights violations, but there has not been progress,” Miftah said.


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