I should have been following this Inquest more closely because the deaths of the 5 newsmen in Balibo, East Timor has always been a sore point with me, especially when the details of how they died was hushed up by the Whitlam Government at the time. Yes, I remember hearing the news of how these five journalists were supposedly caught in crossfire. However, a more thorough investigation has shown that this was not the case, and that two former Indonesian soldiers committed war crimes against the Geneva Convention.
AFTER 32 years of secrecy, the killing of the Balibo Five newsmen has been branded a “war crime” and Australia could launch prosecutions against the Indonesian soldiers involved.
Yesterday’s finding by Deputy NSW Coroner Dorelle Pinch that the five were killed by Indonesian special force soldiers after surrendering will be referred to federal lawyers and police for war crime prosecutions. The Government could then be obliged to seek the extradition of at least two former soldiers — one likely to be a retired army general, Mohammad Yunus Yosfiah, for wilful killing of civilians against the Geneva Convention.
Seeking prosecutions under the convention would be a first for Australian authorities, which used separate war crimes legislation for the post-1945 trials of Japanese accused and more recent action against alleged Nazi fugitives. But Indonesia may fear any action could be a prelude to further international prosecutions over Jakarta’s 24-year occupation of East Timor, during which numerous massacres and atrocities were documented.
Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said yesterday he would refer the Balibo inquest finding to the Australian Federal Police and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
Prime Minister John Howard said he would seek advice on the most appropriate response.
“It’s a long time ago but that doesn’t mean that the relatives of those people who died aren’t entitled to have a proper response to the coroner’s finding,” he said.
Then captain Yunus and another Indonesian special forces soldier, Christoforus da Silva, were the only two named participants in the killing of the five newsmen after they surrendered with their hands up in the village square of Balibo early on October 16, 1975.
Ms Pinch said Channel Nine cameraman Brian Peters was probably the first to fall, with colleague Malcolm Rennie and Channel Seven’s Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart killed soon after on the orders of Captain Yunus, to prevent news getting out of the Indonesian attack.
“There is strong circumstantial evidence that those orders emanated from the head of Indonesian Special Forces, Major-General Benny Murdani, to Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, Special Forces Group commander in Timor, and then to Captain Yunus,” Ms Pinch said. Murdani and Kalbuadi are now dead.
The bereaved families hailed the finding. Earlier official investigations found the newsmen were killed by crossfire in the “heat of battle”.
John Milkins, the son of Mr Cunningham, said the coroner’s findings were immensely important and courageous. Greg Cunningham, brother of Gary Cunningham, said: “We’ve always believed … we’ve been lied to about how they died and the manner of their death.” Paul Stewart, brother of Tony Stewart, called for the culprits to be treated the same way as the Bali bombers.
In Jakarta, the findings were dismissed as “Australia’s internal process” by military spokesman Air Vice-Marshall Sagom Tamboen. A spokesman for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said “the book is closed on that”.