After a lifetime dedicated to fighting for a free East Timor, Jacinto Alves will finally see his country move to full independence Monday, when the United Nations’ transitional administration steps aside to make way for the country’s first democratically elected government.

But the 45-year-old human rights activist’s work is far from over. As one of seven national commissioners on East Timor’s new Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, Alves now faces the formidable task of documenting a quarter-century of rights abuses and fostering reconciliation among his countrymen after 24 years of Indonesian occupation.

On a recent visit to Japan, Alves explained that the commission aims to help East Timorese overcome the hatred and divisions the occupation has created by providing local forums for those guilty of lesser violations, such as arson, theft and minor assault, to publicly confess their crimes and apologize to victims. Perpetrators would then be required to compensate victims in some way, he said, by paying a sum of money, for example, or working to repair the damage they had caused, thereby freeing them from further civil or criminal prosecution.

Criminal prosecution of those responsible for planning and carrying out atrocities in the leadup to and aftermath of the 1999 U.N.-sponsored independence ballot is moving at a snail’s pace, he said. Ensuring justice for victims of low-level crimes will help alleviate suspicions that reconciliation means nothing more than forgiving and forgetting.

“We can’t erase victims’ feelings of hatred in this way,” he said, “but (we) can help minimize them by fostering the feeling that they are being compensated for their suffering to at least some extent.”

The commission is due to begin public hearings this week and will operate from six regional offices staffed by between 25 and 30 regional commissioners. While it is modeled on South Africa’s truth commission, it will not deal with serious crimes such as murder, torture and rape, and it will not have the power to grant amnesties. It will work in cooperation with the formal justice system, and any evidence it receives relating to serious offenses will be passed on to East Timor’s general prosecutor’s office for further investigation.

Observers have expressed concern that many seemingly nonserious crimes, such as arson and intimidation, fall into the category of crimes against humanity when committed as part of a systematic attack on a civilian population and should therefore be dealt with as violations of international criminal law rather than as part of the reconciliation process.

The commission is aware of this concern, Alves said, adding that there are thousands of such possible cases and treating every one as a criminal offense would be too much for East Timor’s already overburdened criminal justice system to handle.

During its term, which will run for up to 2 1/2 years, the commission will also look into all human rights violations committed between 1974 and 1999, in order to create an accurate historical record of the conflict. Alves said the scope of this part of the commission’s mandate has sparked fears that it will be flooded with an unmanageable number of cases to investigate.

The commissioners plan to deal with this, he explained, by focusing on representative cases covering major themes such as extrajudicial executions, starvation, deportation, rape and torture.

“Considering the vast number of cases, though, even this will still be a lot of work,” he said.

The commission is also tasked with helping foster the return of refugees from West Timor, where hundreds of thousands of East Timorese fled or were deported in September 1999. The Japanese government has pledged to provide $1 million of the commission’s $3.8 million budget.

Alves, who spent seven years in jail as a political prisoner and lost many family members to Indonesian military violence, said that while he is willing to forgive, he will never forget.

“I accept, and perhaps my family can accept, it as the consequence of our struggle (for liberation),” he said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.