Helen Todd's battle for justice

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Helen Todd's battle for justice

Punitive Damage
Directed by Annie Goldson
Sydney Film Festival

Review by Michael Goldstein

Punitive Damage, recently shown at the Sydney Film Festival, is an inspiring and most moving testimony to the courage and persistence of author Helen Todd in achieving justice for her son, Kamal Bamadhaj, murdered by the Indonesian military in East Timor just after the Dili massacre in November 1991.

Director Annie Goldson tells of the lonely road travelled by Todd in her struggle for justice. She is confronted by every possible denial, cover-up and prevarication by the Indonesian government in its attempt to conceal her son's death. Goldson uses existing film footage from East Timor and skilfully interweaves this with reconstructed court scenes and interviews with eyewitnesses. It is a major tour de force.

Very little help in establishing the truth was forthcoming from her own government in New Zealand (which did, however, partly fund this film) or that in Australia. She was mostly helped by eyewitnesses and journalists such as Allan Nairn and Australian Russell Anderson.

Finally, with the assistance of some enlightened lawyers in New York who realised that a case could be mounted under US law, Todd brought an action against one of the murderers, Sintong Panjaitan, known to be then living in New York, and the Indonesian government, for whom Panjaitan was acting as a security agent. They were charged with the aggravated murder of her son.

An extraordinary scene shows a writ being handed to Panjaitan through the partly opened door to his flat and his polite expression of thanks. When he realises that the contents are not free tickets to the Met he takes the next flight back to Jakarta.

US$12 million was awarded as punitive damages to Todd, who immediately offered the money to all those mothers who had suffered a similar bereavement in East Timor.

It is not surprising given Canberra's "nod and wink" acceptance of whatever the Indonesians did in East Timor that the Australian media gave no publicity to Kamal's death. No sense of public outrage was permitted to surface.

Kamal, who was part Kiwi (from his mother) and part Malaysian, was a human rights activist and student of Indonesian, history and politics at the University of NSW. Todd explains how her son had always been concerned about Indonesia's oppression of its indigenous people. He was a frequent visitor to Indonesia, was well known among students there and kept an accurate diary of his activities.

Kamal was an observer of the rally which ended in the Dili massacre and was obviously targeted by Indonesian security there. He was shot in the back while returning to his digs and died of loss of blood while the Indonesian authorities argued at a roadblock about whether to allow the ambulance carrying him to proceed. The Indonesian government continues to deny responsibility for his death.

Todd was working with impoverished women in Bangladesh when she heard of Kamal's death. She rushed to Jakarta where she was informed that she could collect her son's body. After many hours of waiting and many phone calls to embassy officials, a body was produced which she was unable to identify and which, according to some witnesses, was too large to be Kamal's.

Todd returned to Bangladesh where she began the long and painful fight for justice portrayed in this film.

Goldson is not afraid to use footage depicting the appalling brutality of the Indonesian armed forces in their murder of East Timorese after beatings and torture. Some of these pictures were taken by the military themselves and smuggled out of East Timor.

At the end of Punitive Damage one is filled with a sense of outrage, but also with tremendous admiration for Helen Todd and her brave battle. The film celebrates the noble side of human nature (in contrast to the evil rapacity of Suharto's supporters) and therefore inspires hope.