Timorese church opposes Indonesian deal on war crimes

East Timor's new Catholic bishop has opposed a deal between Timorese and Indonesian leaders to drop trials over atrocities during the country's 1999 independence process, saying it lacks public support.

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Timorese counterpart Xanana Gusmao agreed in Jakarta last month to form a Truth and Friendship Commission to deal with crimes during Indonesia's scorched earth withdrawal six years ago.

The United Nations has refused to endorse the deal, proposing instead a Commission of Experts to assess why a 1999 Security Council resolution to try those accused of war crimes has failed.

"What Kofi Annan says or not, what Timorese leaders want or not, the position of the church is the same, it's clear and firm. We need justice, justice must be done," Bishop Alberto Ricardo da Silva said.

Da Silva took over as bishop of Dili -- an influential position in the largely Catholic country -- last year, replacing Nobel peace laureate Carlos Ximenes Belo, who retired due to ill-health.

The new bishop asserted that 'all' Timorese people supported war crimes trials, and said he was dealing with constant complaints from his congregation over the issue.

Foreign Ministers Jose Ramos Horta of East Timor and Hassan Wirayuda of Indonesia are due to meet in Bali on Tuesday to hammer out details of the proposed commission, Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa told AFP in Jakarta.

Ramos Horta, who also attended the initial Jakarta meeting, told Portugal's LUSA news agency the scheme would contribute to 'closing a chapter of history'.

Militia gangs directed by Indonesian army officers killed around 1,500 independence supporters, laid waste to much of the infrastructure and forcibly deported 250,000 people after a UN-supervised poll which returned an overwhelming independence vote.

A UN Security Council resolution later adopted a two-pronged approach to war crimes. Indonesia formed an ad hoc court to try its citizens accused of atrocities, while a UN-backed Special Crimes Unit was set up in Dili to try Indonesian soldiers and Timorese militiamen alike for crimes against humanity.

The Indonesian court wound up last year after acquitting all but one of the 18 alleged perpetrators who appeared before it.

The Special Crimes Unit jailed 74 Timorese culprits, but was powerless to extradite Indonesian commanders: more than 300 people wanted for trial have sanctuary in Indonesia.

It is scheduled to close down when the current UN mission leaves East Timor in May.

Timorese human rights lawyer Aderito de Jesus Soares said in Dili that the Truth and Friendship Commission could 'bypass and undermine' the UN proposal.

Bishop da Silva said the Timorese church would not actively petition the United Nations on the issue, "but our door is always open".

The 61-year-old cleric said he was puzzled by Gusmao's stand. "I don't understand," he said. "If you reconcile, does justice remain to be done, or is it not going to be done?

"When a person steals, and they're not tried, where are we?

"If there was a crime, there has to be justice. This is independent of Xanana's position. It's nothing new, it's always been the church's position on justice and peace... Guilty or not guilty, justice must be done', de Silva said.

He said he had not yet spoken personally to Gusmao on the issue, but would like clarification.

The bishop defended a younger generation of East Timorese who survived a 1991 massacre in which around 200 unarmed demonstrators were killed by Indonesian soldiers.

As the parish priest who said mass before the nationalist demonstration, he has always argued for perpetrators to be judged.

Under pressure from human rights groups and governments, including the US government, the Suharto (news - web sites) dictatorship tried several officers.

Their nominal sentences did not satisfy world opinion and led to a US arms embargo still largely in force, but currently under review.