JAKARTA, Indonesia – An Indonesian general was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison Tuesday for human rights abuses committed after East Timor (search) voted for independence in 1999.
The verdict against Maj. Gen. Adam Damiri (search) was a surprise because prosecutors had said in May there wasn't enough evidence against him and asked that the charges be dropped.
But the relatively light sentence will likely fuel new allegations made by human rights groups that a specially convened human rights tribunal for East Timor has been nothing but a government whitewash.
Damiri was the last of 18 suspects to appear in the trials. Six of the defendants have been found guilty, but their sentences were light. The toughest sentence of 10 years in prison was handed down to a Timorese civilian who led a notorious militia.
Some say the verdicts show how the Indonesian military — the main pillar of the 32-year dictatorship of former President Suharto (search) — has succeeded in re-establishing its influence in Indonesian society five years after his ouster.
"The outcome of this trial just shows that the generals are again all-powerful and that they can get away with anything they want," said George Atidjondro, an Indonesian professor at Australia's University of Newcastle.
East Timor was under Damiri's area of command when soldiers and army-trained militia laid waste to the province after voters chose independence in a U.N. election in August, 1999. At least 1,000 people were killed.
Damiri, who had maintained his innocence, shouted loudly and raised his arms in protest when the guilty verdict was read out.
"I feel very disappointed with this decision," he said later. He said he would appeal, and remains free until then.
Jakarta convened the trials amid intense international pressure to deliver justice. The United Nations has raised the possibility of setting up a war crimes tribunal for East Timor, like those held for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
John Miller, spokesman for the East Timor Action Network, a U.S.-based human rights group, said the verdict could complicate efforts by the United States to restore military ties as it seeks to enlist Indonesia in the war on terror.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted against resuming military links after revelations that Indonesian troops were likely responsible for an attack on a group of U.S. schoolteachers last year in the eastern Indonesian province of Papua. Two Americans and an Indonesian were killed and eight other U.S. citizens were badly wounded.