The awarding of one of Indonesia’s highest honours to a former militia leader indicted for crimes against humanity has been labelled an insult to both East Timor and Australia.
David Savage, an Australian former United Nations peacekeeper and war crimes investigator in East Timor, slammed the presentation of Eurico Guterres with the Star of Service medal by Indonesia President Joko Widodo.
Guterres was a key figure in the violence that accompanied East Timor’s bid for independence from Indonesia in 1999 and was later indicted by the UN for crimes against humanity including murder, persecution and other inhumane acts.
More than 1400 people were estimated to have been killed by pro-Jakarta militias groups, who destroyed the capital Dili and burned villages to the ground following a referendum in which 78 per cent voted to break away from Indonesia.
Guterres, 51, who headed the feared Aitarak militia, was in 2002 sentenced to 10 years’ prison by a human rights court in Jakarta over his role in the bloodshed in East Timor.
His conviction was overturned by Indonesia’s Supreme Court in 2008 but his presidential award has been greeted with shock.
“The guy is a psychopath and has been indicted for crimes against humanity. To make him essentially a hero of Indonesia is gobsmacking,“ said Savaga.
Savage, a former Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer, had his book about his experiences helping oversee the UN-backed independence vote turned into a TV mini-series.
The poll ultimately brought an end to a quarter of a century of Indonesian occupation but not before a campaign of terror that forced 250,000 people to flee to Indonesian West Timor and resulted in the deployment of an Australian-led international peacekeeping force.
Savage returned as a UN investigator between 2001 and 2005 as part of a probe by its Serious Crimes Unit into a rampage of kidnappings, assaults, rapes and murders by pro-Indonesian militia.
“The Indonesians continually in ’99 pushed this line that it was rogue elements of the Indonesian military that were supporting the militias,” said Savage, who was in 2012 badly wounded by a child suicide bomber while in Afghanistan as an AusAID adviser.
“This [award to Guterres] just completely dispels that myth because for them to give him such a high accolade, which can only be for his role there [in East Timor], shows that he obviously did a good job for the government of Indonesia.“
The decision to include Guterres alongside a German scientist who assisted Indonesia on climate issues, a senior journalist and a late academic from Aceh province in receiving the award from Joko has been met with some opposition in Indonesia, with a group of civil society groups saying it was “like dripping vinegar on the victims’ wounds”.
An open letter has also been written to Joko by Cris Carrascalao, whose teenage brother Manelito and 11 others were killed in an attack at their family home in Dili where pro-independence supporters had gathered in April 1999. The massacre was chronicled in the UN indictments against Guterres and other militia members.
Carrascalao, whose mother is Indonesian, said she was “appalled and disgusted” at the honour bestowed on Guterres and urged the President to change his mind.
“[My brother] was only 16 years old. He was shot, hacked to death with machetes as each militia entered the house, by Eurico Guterres orders,” she said.
“My family was ordered to be killed down to the seventh generation.
“Our house was full of civilians who were displaced from the villages, with the escalating violence perpetrated by the militia groups throughout the half-island.
“Is this how you want your presidency to be remembered? I urge you to consider withdrawing the medal you have given to this mass murderer.”
Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, Mahfud MD, however, defended the honour.
“Eurico Guterres was fighting alongside the forces of the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia when we were developing East Timor as part of the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia,” he said.
It was also backed by Lieutenant General Agus Widjojo, a former co-chair of the Indonesia-East Timor Commission of Truth and Friendship, who argued he was a worthy recipient.
He said while human rights violations had later been found, Guterres had been fighting on the side of the Indonesian government “in an armed conflict with the forces of Fretilin”, the main resistance group.
“On the other side was the party who attempted to uphold the law and regulations,” he said.
“East Timor was part of Indonesia at that time. Therefore, in this case, Eurico Guterres is a national fighter and a patriot.”
Comment was sought from the office of East Timor Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak.
Guterres was last year awarded another top prize, the National Defence Patriot Award, by Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, a former special forces general and son-in-law of former dictator Suharto who was himself accused of human rights abuses in the armed forces and was discharged from the military in 1998.
Prabowo, who has run unsuccessfully against Joko in the past two presidential elections, recruited Guterres to the Gardapaksi paramilitary group in the mid-1990s.