Step forward in 1975 East Timor murders

New York, November 19, 2007— The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes an Australian coroner’s Friday ruling that five journalists were deliberately killed in 1975 by Indonesian armed forces seeking to prevent them from reporting on Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor.

The killings may qualify as war crimes under the Geneva Conventions and Australian law, according to the report by Dorelle Pinch, the deputy coroner for the state of New South Wales. Pinch referred the case to the Australian Attorney-General Philip Ruddock.  

“We are glad that official recognition of this horrific killing has finally been granted to the journalists and their families,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the Indonesian government to cooperate fully with bringing the perpetrators to justice in accordance with international law.”

According to Pinch’s findings, the instructions to carry out the executions must have passed through a chain of command that included the former head of the Indonesian Special Forces Major General Benny Murdani, who later went on to lead the military’s intelligence wing for more than a decade, Special Forces Group Commander Dading Kalbuadi, and Captain Yunus Yosfiah.

Yosfiah, then field commander of the East Timorese town of Balibo near the Indonesian border where the killings took place, served as Indonesia’s minister of information in 1998 and 1999. His troops photographed the bodies in Portuguese army uniforms then burnt them to disguise the fact that they had been shot or stabbed, Pinch concluded. Yosfiah did not respond to the coroner’s invitation to attend the inquest, according to her report.

The findings of the six-week inquest were specific to British journalist Brian Peters but applied equally to fellow Briton Malcolm Rennie, Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, and Gary Cunningham from New Zealand, the journalists remembered along with Peters as the “Balibo Five,” Pinch wrote.  

The Indonesian government’s official view that the journalists had been accidentally killed in crossfire remained unchanged by the verdict, a spokesman told the Associated Press in Jakarta. Pinch’s report did not release the details of their deaths. 

Australian Prime Minister John Howard committed on Saturday to bringing the journalists’ remains to Australia, according to the Australian Associated Press. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer cautioned that assembling evidence for a possible war crimes trial would take a long time, the media report said.

East Timor was a Portuguese colony before declaring independence in 1975 just prior to the Indonesian invasion to which the five journalists bore witness.