Police probe Balibo deaths after 35 years

September 13, 2009

On September 8, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) notified the families of the five journalists killed in 1975 at Balibo in East Timor that it had begun an investigation into the killings.

A NSW coronial inquest into the death of Channel Nine reporter Brian Peters, held in 2007, concluded that Indonesian soldiers deliberately killed the journalists to cover up Indonesia's illegal invasion of East Timor.

The journalists were filming the Indonesian military's offensive to capture towns held by the East Timorese liberation force, Fretilin.

Deputy state coroner Dorelle Pinch indicated that charges of war crimes might be warranted. The coronial inquest's verdict was handed down a few days before the November 2007 federal election that ushered in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Labor government.

As opposition leader, Rudd pledged to follow up the recommendations of the inquiry.

Public interest in the case has grown since the Australian release of the Robert Connolly film Balibo on August 13.

The film is about the deaths of five journalists — Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Gary Cunningham. Another character portrayed in the film is the Australian journalist Roger East, who went to East Timor in October 1975 to investigate the deaths of the Balibo Five.

The film reopened speculation about the extent of the Australian government's knowledge about the killings. For years, the Australian government has maintained it did not know when the Balibo Five were killed or how they died.

The 2007 coronial inquest found that Peters, along with the four other men, "died at Balibo in Timor-Leste on 16 October 1975 from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces, including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo".

The report also identified the chain of command above Yosfiah. "There is strong circumstantial evidence that those orders emanated from the Head of the Indonesian Special Forces, Major-General Benny Murdani to Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, Special Forces Group Commander in Timor, and then to Captain Yosfiah."

Today, Yunus Yosfiah is a member of parliament for Indonesia's United Development Party. In 1998-99 he was the Minister for Information under the Jusuf Habibie government.

Paul Stewart, the younger brother of Tony Stewart, told Green Left Weekly: "I am really glad that the military officers involved in my brother's death are finally going to face investigation.

"It has only taken the AFP some 35 years to get this started. I would like to stress that I do not hate Indonesians. I am glad though that those who will face the glare of the spotlight is the Javanese military elite who killed not only my brother, but hundreds of thousands of East Timorese, West Papuans and Indonesians as well."

Greig Cunningham, the brother of Gary Cunningham, was also gratified at the news of the investigation, the September 10 Age said. However, Cunningham said he "doubted anything would come of it".

Relatives of the Balibo Five have undergone decades of frustration at the stance of past Australian governments — Labor and Liberal alike. Both big parties have maintained that the men were killed in the "heat of battle" between Fretilin and Indonesian forces. Successive Indonesian governments have said the same thing.

Theo Sambuaga, an Indonesian MP with the former ruling party Golkar and head of the parliamentary committee on defence and foreign affairs said on September 9 that the AFP investigation was "a waste of time". Indonesia would not agree to any extraditions to Australia, he said.

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