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Australians covered up East Timor terror plot

People within the Australian government have leaked secret files to the Sydney Morning Herald that demonstrate that the Canberra government knew beforehand of Indonesia's plan to lay waste to East Timor if the Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia in September 1999. As early as the beginning of 1999 Australian intelligence services intercepted communications of the Indonesian military that detailed their plan to prevent a referendum on national independence from happening or destroy the country.
Asia Times

March 20, 2002

Canberra's silence aided East Timor violence

By Sonny Inbaraj (Inter Press Service)

- Evidence has emerged that the Australian government withheld vital information indicating the direct role of Jakarta's generals in the 1999 violence that swept the former Indonesian province of East Timor.

Leaked details to the Sydney Morning Herald indicate how Australian intelligence intercepted electronic messages between Indonesian officers, who were waging a campaign of fear to prevent East Timorese voting for independence from Indonesia at a United Nations-sponsored referendum on August 30, 1999.

But this collected evidence, which could provide a vital link to the mastermind of the brutal violence after the vote, which led to the deaths of nearly 1,000 East Timorese and destroyed most of the territory's infrastructure, has been withheld from UN investigators.

Transcripts of the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) - Australia's spy body, which often resorts to phone taps and electronic eavesdroppers - published by the Herald late last week show a covert chain of command from then Indonesian president B.J. Habibie's coordinating minister for politics and security, General Feisal Tanjung, to army generals and colonels on the ground in East Timor.

Irked by the intelligence leaks, the Australian government on Friday instructed Federal Police to investigate into the breach of national security.

Defence Minister Robert Hill denied in parliament that Australia had withheld information from the UN. "I will not comment on matters relating to intelligence and security, but I can say that Australia gave information based on intelligence to the United Nations to assist its human-rights investigations," he said.

But the published information "provides evidence for the first time that Tanjung, a career special forces and paratroops officer, used a network of similar minded officers in a campaign to avert a vote for independence in the United Nations-supervised ballot on August 30, 1999", wrote Hamish McDonald, an author of books on East Timor and international editor for the Herald.

The Herald also revealed, quoting from a DSD intercept, that when the Indonesian army officers failed to prevent a vote for independence, they then organized the forced deportation of one-third of East Timor's population and the destruction of infrastructure, with the assistance of two other ministers in Habibie's cabinet, former generals A.M. Hendropriyono and Mohammad Yunus Yosfiah.

Yosfiah, then the information minister in Habibie's cabinet, has also been implicated in the 1975 killings of five Australian and British journalists in the East Timor border town of Balibo.

"The leak of highly classified intelligence material is the first time raw DSD intercepts relating to a contemporary event have been disclosed. It reflects deep disquiet in defense circles that Canberra at first downplayed the high-level Indonesian military involvement with the militias, blaming it on 'rogue elements', and since then has not used it to help war-crimes investigations," wrote McDonald.

The daily also quoted from DSD intercepts in February 1999 showing that Jakarta had sent detachments of special forces, code-named Tribuana and Venus, to begin "black operations" in East Timor targeting pro-independence political activists and supporters.

The DSD, according to the Herald, had also picked up conversations of the East Timor army commander, then Colonel Tono Suratman supervising the notorious militia leader Eurico Guterres.

This is not the first time Australia has been accused of withholding vital information on East Timor from the UN. An Australian Army intelligence officer who served in East Timor accused Canberra of concealing vital evidence on Indonesian army and militia war crimes in 1999. In May, Captain Andrew Plunkett, of 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, told The Age newspaper that a massacre of more than 40 people at a police station in the border town of Maliana in September 1999 might not have occurred if the Australian government had acted on intelligence information predicting the killings. He said that before the August 1999 referendum, he had seen accurate reports from the Australian Defence Intelligence Organization, "none of which were being passed on to the UN on the ground".

On the Maliana killings, Plunkett was quoted as saying that Australian sources had accurately reported on Indonesian plans to kill independence supporters in Maliana, but their reports were "pushed up the chain of command, hosed down and politically wordsmithed by the Asia division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade". He said the information was "held" at the department instead of being passed to UN observers in Maliana who could have warned the population.

The latest revelations do not add to Australia's reputation in relation to its actions on East Timor. For a long time, it had accepted Indonesia's annexation of East Timor, a policy that had come under fire from rights activists, but took an active part in international efforts to help the territory after the 1999 referendum.

The revelations also come as Indonesia begins efforts ostensibly to bring to justice the perpetrators of the killing sprees and destruction that followed that historic vote.

In January 2000, the UN International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor and the Indonesian government's own human rights commission both found the Indonesian military responsible for crimes against humanity committed in East Timor in 1999. The UN commission called for the creation an international tribunal, but Jakarta balked at the possibility of international trails, claiming that the UN was interfering in its "internal affairs". As a compromise, and because of pressure from the international community, Jakarta promised to establish its own Ad Hoc Human Rights Court for East Timor.

In mid-January this year, after several months of political inaction, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri appointed ad hoc judges to the Indonesian Tribunal on East Timor. But critics say the judges could be fearful of carrying out their appointed tasks because the president's office had not provided any measures to protect their safety, despite the fact that an Indonesian Supreme Court judge was assassinated last year after investigating corruption and human-rights abuses.

In the dock at the opening of the trial last Thursday, at separate sessions, were Indonesia's civilian governor of East Timor in 1999, Abilio Soares, and the provincial police chief, Brigadier-General Timbul Silaen. Four hours after the hearing began, the judges adjourned the case for a week.

Silaen is one of three generals among the 18 military personnel and civilian militia leaders accused by Indonesian and UN investigators of participation or responsibility in some of the more large-scale acts of murder in 1999. The other two are Major-General Adam Damiri, former head of the Udayana regional command, which included East Timor, and Brigadier-General Tono Suratman, who was East Timor military commander for much of 1999.