Indonesia warned Australia today that reopening an inquiry into the killing of five foreign journalists during Jakarta’s 1975 invasion of East Timor risked casting a chill over relations across all three countries.
Ties between Indonesia, East Timor and Australia are at an all-time high after years of tension over Jakarta’s annexation of East Timor and bloodshed leading to the fledgling nation’s 1999 vote for independence.
But Australian Federal Police reopened an investigation into the deaths of the reporters known as “the Balibo five” nearly two years after a Sydney coroner concluded that Indonesian soldiers deliberately killed them.
An Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman said officials would not cooperate with the investigation and questioned the move when the neighbours were trying to right a history of rocky relations.
“We will observe very closely where this process leads because it will certainly have some potential to create a hurdle in the relationship,” spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told Reuters.
Faizasyah said the case’s “many implications” could also upset Indonesia’s fragile relations with East Timor.
“We consider the case is closed,” he said. “We are not even considering extradition of our nationals to face criminal charges on something that has already been resolved.”
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith acknowledged that the reopening of the inquiry into the deaths of two Australians, two Britons and a New Zealander — had generated surprise.
“There’s no point beating about the bush, Indonesia is surprised by this decision,” Smith told state radio. “(But) we don’t regard these as issues that will disturb the fundamentals of the relationship.”
Decision could affect moves against militants
Indonesia’s ambassador, he said, had been informed of the decision and Australian police had acted alone in reopening the investigation 34 years after the deaths.
The 2007 ruling said the killings were ordered to cover up an Indonesian incursion into East Timor ahead of the full invasion.
The new war crimes inquiry could damage not only improving ties between Indonesia and Australia, but also impair cooperation between police forces on combating Indonesian militants.
East Timor’s President Jose Ramos-Horta called this month for the journalists’ killers to be brought to justice, reversing earlier government opposition to war crimes prosecutions.
The case has been an irritant to Australian-Indonesian relations for decades, with the men’s families campaigning for the Indonesian officers responsible to face justice.
The cloudy circumstances surrounding their deaths of journalists Greg Shackleton and Malcolm Rennie, sound recordist Tony Stewart and cameramen Gary Cunningham and Brian Peters have been made into a movie recently.
The new police probe will focus on Mohammad Yunus Yosfiah, an army Special Forces captain accused of ordering the killings and who later rose to be an Indonesian government minister, and another soldier, Christoforus da Silva.
The coroner’s inquest heard in 2007 that Yosfiah, a former Minister of Information and still a member of parliament, ordered the shootings under instruction from senior officers. He denied the accusation.
Official Indonesian reports say the men died in crossfire with Timorese Fretilin fighters on October 16, 1975, as Indonesian forces entered East Timor two months before the full invasion.
Analysts said the inquiry was unlikely to lead to extradition and prosecution as Indonesian law did not recognise war crimes.
“For many Australians, what happened there to five young men in 1975 has etched itself indelibly into their views about Indonesia. But the hard question for Australia as a nation is whether it’s wise to continue to pick at this tragedy,” senior political columnist Michelle Grattan wrote in The Age newspaper.
Pic: Flag of Australia