Indonesia must cooperate with Australian coroner’s investigation

New York, May 4, 2007—The Indonesian government should do everything in its power to compel former military commander and minister of information Yunus Yosfiah to testify in an Australian inquest into the 1975 deaths of five Australian television journalists, The Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Yosfiah, now retired, was an Indonesian army captain who allegedly took part in the attack on the East Timor border town of Balibo on October 16 1975, while the Indonesian army was fighting secessionist Timorese guerrillas. The allegation was made on Tuesday in testimony by Antonio Sarmento, a former Timorese guerrilla who was in the area at the time of the killings, but did not witness the killings. Sarmento now lives in Australia.

Yosfiah denied the allegations in an interview with Australia’s ABC radio on March 1. He has publicly declined a request by Deputy State Coroner Dorelle Pinch to appear either in person or by video link at the hearing, which was reopened Tuesday after a two-month recess. Following Yosfiah’s rejection, Pinch ordered that an arrest warrant be issued for him. Yosfiah, who eventually retired as a lieutenant-general, served as Indonesia’s information minister from 1998 to 1999. Under Australian law, coroners have the power to issue arrest orders.

“As a former member of Indonesia’s military with responsibility for the area in which five journalists were killed, Yunus Yosfiah should step forward to tell the world what he knows about these men’s deaths. The Indonesian government should do its utmost to ensure that one of its high-ranking officers and cabinet members cooperates in Australia’s attempt to find the truth,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director.

According to Sarmento, he had been told by an Indonesian journalist, whom he did not identify, that the five men—reporter Greg Shackleton, soundman Tony Stewart, 21, and cameraman Gary Cunningham who worked for the Australian Seven Network, and cameraman Brian Peters and reporter Malcolm Rennie, who worked for the Nine Network—had painted an Australian flag on the outside of the hut in which they had taken refuge, and they had raised their hands in surrender, identifying themselves as Australian journalists before they were shot. The group had been covering the fighting, which at times had been vicious. Balibo is near the border of Indonesia and what was then Portuguese Timor.

According to Australian media reports, Sarmento also testified that the night before the killings, a Captain Fernando told him the Indonesians knew the five Australian newsmen were in Balibo and wanted them dead. The Indonesian government has held that the men were killed in crossfire when their troops attacked Balibo.

Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam appeared at the inquest on Thursday to answer allegations that his government covered-up the deaths of the men to protect the country’s relations with Indonesia and protect Australia’s intelligence service.

The inquest will resume on Monday.