Covalima, East Timor - East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao on Tuesday visited victims of a 1999 massacre to explain the government's decision to free a militia leader involved in the carnage that left about 400 dead.
Gusmao visited Covalima, 170 kilometres south of Dili, to justify the state's decision to release former deputy militia leader Maternus Bere on the 10th anniversary of the Covalima September Massacre.
"The state position is, we have to give our respect to the victims by creating a culture of tolerance and living in peace," Gusmao told relatives of those who died in the brutal attack. "The decision was based on the interests of all people."
Maternus Bere, vice commander of the pro-Indonesian Laksaur militia, has been serving a prison term after being found guilty of homicide, committing sexual violence and torture in the church of Nossa Senhora de Fatima Suai-Covalima on September 6, 1999, one of the worst atrocities in East Timor's bloody struggle for independence from Indonesia.
The government last week decided to free the former militia leader.
The decision has irked victims and relatives, and is raising questions about East Timor's judicial system.
"I don't want to talk about the concrete case of a militia leader but I just want to say that, we are all preoccupied with the legality of Timorese justice," Prosecutor General Ana Pesoa said.
The pardon has also drawn criticism from the head of the opposition Fretilin party, Aniceto Guteres. "We condemn government policy and interference into judicial system. Tens of thousands of victims are waiting for justice and the government must not ignore victims suffering," he said.
In August 1999, 78.5 per cent of the population voted in favour of splitting from Indonesia in a referendum. Indonesia had invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975.
The occupation caused around at least 100,000 deaths among the 1.1 million East Timorese, caused by killings, diseases and starvation a UN-established truth commission found.
In the referendum's aftermath, Indonesian soldiers and pro-Jakarta militias killed about 1,400 people and injured and maimed many more.
United Nations peace troops, led by Australia, restored order and East Timor became formally independent in 2002. (dpa)
AAP (Australian Associated Press) - September 8, 2009 - 8:04PM
Gusmao attends massacre memorial
East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has confounded critics of his freeing of indicted war criminal Maternus Bere by attending a memorial Mass for Bere's victims.
The country's two Catholic bishops presided at the Mass in the south coast city of Suai on Tuesday, which was attended by an impressive line-up of Gusmao's cabinet, along with several thousand Suai residents.
The prime minister later laid a cross on a monument to three priests who were hacked to death by members of Bere's Laksaur militia unit, run covertly by the Indonesian army.
In February 2003, Bere was indicted by the UN's Serious Crimes Unit on 51 counts of crimes against humanity for murders, enforced disappearances, rapes and torture.
An Interpol warrant is current for his arrest.
After enjoying sanctuary in Indonesian Timor for six years, he was arrested by East Timorese police on August 8 after slipping into Suai to visit relatives.
The controversy began during East Timor's celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the UN-supervised referendum for independence in which voters rejected Indonesia by an overwhelming 78 per cent.
Informed sources said that early on August 30, Indonesian foreign minister Hasan Wirayuda, an invited guest, phoned President Jose Ramos Horta to say he would not come unless Bere was freed into his custody during the visit.
Ramos Horta then contacted Gusmao to effect the release, and the prime minister ordered Dili's prison governor to free him after other officials refused to do so without a judge's order.
Wirayuda flew in to Dili in his private plane to attend the independence celebrations, with Bere being delivered to Dili's Indonesian embassy.
However, it is not clear whether Bere was taken back to Indonesia or is still holed up in the building.
Gusmao travelled to Suai two days before the memorial service, convincing the church to postpone it from September 6, the real anniversary of the day when 200 people were slaughtered at Suai cathedral, to allow him time to explain himself to victims' families.
The apparent result was the absence of any reference to the Bere affair by either church speakers or the prime minister during Tuesday's Mass.
Julio Alves Amaral, 49, a family member, said he was saddened to learn of Bere's release and "a bit angry, but anger doesn't get us anywhere".
His 11-year-old nephew Carlos Soares was killed at Suai cathedral, his body never found, and his daughter Juliana dos Santos (Alola) is the teenage girl kidnapped by a Laksaur commander whose cause has been championed by the prime minister's wife Kirsty Sword.
"I don't agree with Bere's release, but what can we do? The common people can't say anything," he said.
He said the prime minister had told families that Bere was back in Indonesia.
The affair has angered the UN, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay reminding Ramos Horta that Bere's release violated key UN Security Council resolutions as well as his own country's laws.
"I appreciate your government's desire to develop healthy relations with Indonesia," she said. "However, I trust that you will appreciate that your government should not avoid its international obligations in the name of bilateral cooperation."