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Australia - East Timor - Indonesia 23 May 2007

Australian government alleged to have covered up murders of five journalists in Balibo

As a Glebe Coroner’s Court inquest into the murders of cameraman Brian Peters and four other TV journalists in the East Timor town of Balibo on 16 October 1975 draws to a close, Reporters Without Borders today called on deputy state coroner Dorelle Pinch to use all possible national and international police and judicial mechanisms to arrest those responsible.

The press freedom organisation said the responsibility of Australian officials in concealing the circumstances of their deaths should also be established and sanctioned.

"Sufficient evidence has been produced during this inquest to affirm that the Australian government, by its silence and its half-truths, covered up the murders of Peters and his colleagues that preceded the Indonesian army’s invasion of East Timor," Reporters Without Borders said.

"It is therefore now necessary that those who stayed silent for 32 years should now stop covering up the mistakes made at the time by diplomats and officials," the organisation added. "We also ask coroner Pinch to ensure that all the remaining sessions are open to the public."

The 17 May session saw testimony from several former Australian diplomats and foreign ministry officials who held posts at the time. James Dunn, the former consul in the Timorese capital of Dili, said that as soon as he arrived on the island on 8 October 1975, a Fretilin spokesman told him the Indonesian army had occupied Batugade, near Balibo.

Dunn immediately contacted the journalists to warn them that they were in imminent danger. Shortly after they were killed, he went to Canberra and wrote a note to the foreign minister telling him that the Indonesian army had been aware of their presence in Balibo and decided to kill them so that Indonesia’s lies would not be exposed.

Alan Renouf, the former head of Australia’s department of foreign affairs, confirmed Dunn’s testimony and said "the Indonesian army had good reason to kill the journalists." He also said that he had waited 32 years to be able to say that he regarded the killing of the five journalists as "revolting, quite unnecessary, cold-blooded and really merciless."

After the court was read message intercepts dated 13 and 15 October 1975 with then Australian ambassador to Indonesia Richard Woolcott’s details of the Indonesian invasion plan, Renouf acknowledged that he must have read the intercepts at the time. He said he learned of the journalists’ deaths less than 12 hours after the event and notified the foreign minister. He also accused then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam of giving the Indonesians "carte blanche" to invade East Timor.

Woolcott said it was "obvious that Indonesia intended to turn East Timor into its 27th province." He said he had not been aware of the journalists’ presence in Balibo and learned of their deaths on 17 October 1975 from ABC radio. He received confirmation at a meeting on 12 November 1975 with Gen. Yogo, the head of the Indonesian intelligence agency BAKIN, who gave him four boxes containing the ashes of the journalists and some of their personal effects.

Woolcott said he organised their burial after getting the agreement of the victims’ families. But in a statement read to the court on 18 May, Peters’ sister, Maureen Tolfree, said none of the families had given their agreement to a burial in Jakarta. She added that she was arrested by members of the Indonesian security services, questioned and then sent back to London two days before the burial. Evidence was given showing that the relevant page had been torn from the register of the Jakarta cemetery where the remains were buried on 12 December 1975.

An Australian department of foreign affairs report on the deaths of the journalists in Balibo was read to the court during the 14 May session. The last chapter was about the death of Darwin-based reporter Roger East on 7 December 1975 in Dili, where he had gone on assignment for the Australian Associated Press to investigate the deaths of the journalists in Balibo.

The report said East’s murder was directly linked to the deaths of the Balibo five. Reporters Without Borders therefore calls on the Australian judicial authorities, in particular, those of Northern Territory, where East lived, to reopen the inquiry into his death.

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