An Australian coroner called today for a war crimes probe into what she said was the murder of two British journalists and their three colleagues 32 years ago by Indonesian forces invading East Timor.
The finding stokes the long-running controversy surrounding the case by contradicting the Indonesian and Australian governments’ official version of events – that Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie and the others were killed accidentally in crossfire between Indonesian troops and East Timorese defenders.
It also strains Australia-Indonesia diplomatic ties because it names three former senior officers of Indonesia’s special military forces as probably ordering the killings and suggests they should be investigated for possible war crimes.
New South Wales state deputy coroner Dorelle Pinch, who heard evidence from witnesses and viewed secret intelligence documents during an inquest that lasted months, does not have the power to file charges, but said she referred the case to the attorney general because she believed war crimes may have been committed.
If government lawyers decide to file charges against Indonesians, the government would have to seek their extradition to face trial in Australia.
Indonesian Embassy spokesman Dino Kunandi said the coroner’s finding was still being considered and that there would be no immediate response, although he added that the government’s previous position was that the case was closed.
There was no immediate comment from the Australian government.
Ms Pinch investigated the death of Mr Peters, 29, a British-born cameraman for an Australian television network who was among two news crews who went to Balibo in 1975 to cover the anticipated Indonesian invasion of East Timor after it descended towards civil war following the end of Portuguese colonial rule.
Indonesia’s invasion plans were secret at the time and the direct involvement of Indonesian troops in operations in East Timor was highly sensitive.
On October 16, 1975, Indonesian special forces and their East Timorese proxies attacked the town.
Mr Peters was “shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces … to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo”, Ms Pinch found.
Ms Pinch, was required to make findings only in relation to Mr Peters, but said it was impossible to separate the death of one of the journalists from the others, and that her findings applied equally to all of them.
The bodies of the so-called Balibo five – Mr Peters, 29; Mr Rennie, 28; Australians Gregory Shackleton, 29, and Anthony Stewart, 21; and New Zealander Gary Cunningham, 27, were found burned in Balibo and eventually buried in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.
Ms Pinch said the journalists were killed on the orders of Yunus Yosfiah, who was then an Indonesian military captain and later a government minister. He has denied the claim.
There was “strong circumstantial evidence” that Yosfiah’s orders to kill the journalists came from the then-head of Indonesian Special Forces, Maj Gen Benny Murdani, Ms Pinch said.
Yosfiah and other Indonesian officials refused to testify at the inquest, the first open judicial inquiry into the deaths, which have long attracted accusations of a cover-up by both Indonesians and Australians.
“The journalists were not incidental casualties in the fighting: they were captured then deliberately killed despite protesting their status,” Ms Pinch ruled.
Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Kristiarto Legowo rejected Ms Pinch’s findings.
“The verdict will not change our assertion on what happened in Balibo at the time, namely that those five journalists were killed in crossfire,” Mr Legowo said in Jakarta, adding: “It is a closed case.”
Mr Peters’ sister, Maureen Tolfree, welcomed the finding, along with other relatives of those killed.
“They were murdered in cold blood,” she told reporters outside the court. “Justice has been done. We got what we wanted.”
Australian prime minister, John Howard, said he would seek advice on what was an appropriate next step. Opposition leader Kevin Rudd, who opinion polls say is favoured to become prime minister at elections next week, indicated he would follow up on the war crimes recommendation.
“I believe this has to be taken through to its logical conclusion,” he said.
“I also believe that those responsible should be held to account.”
Australia’s attorney general Phillip Ruddock said he would forward Ms Pinch’s recommendations to police and prosecutors responsible for investigating and compiling war crimes charges.
Prime minister John Howard he would seek advice on what was an appropriate next step.