Last month, a man went on holiday in Timor-Leste. He visited the country's two largest cities, Dili and Baucau in Timor-Leste, and photos of him smiling during the trip soon began circulating on social media.
But this wasn't just any ordinary tourist. He appeared to be Jorge Tavares, who currently lives in Indonesia and hasn't been seen in Timor-Leste since September 1999 because during the Indonesian occupation of the Southeast Asian country he was a senior pro-Indonesian politician cum militia leader. He is wanted for crimes against humanity, including the systematic murder of people who supported independence, and social media users deduced the man in the photos was Tavares.
Tavares is the younger brother of now deceased Joao Tavares, who formed and lead Halilintar, an important pro-Indonesian militia. Halilintar played key roles in the 1975 Indonesian invasion of former Portuguese colony Timor-Leste, the subsequent 24-year occupation as well as the 1999 scorched earth operation of destruction ordered by the Indonesian military during the Timorese independence referendum.
During this period, Jorge Tavares was an important lieutenant to his older brother Joao, but also a leader of pro-Indonesian militias in his own right. During the Indonesian occupation, Jorge Tavares was a member of the Bobonaro local council known as the DPRD, and in 1999 was a leader of the pro-Indonesia advocacy group the FPDK. His son Ruben is also indicted for crimes against humanity as a pro-Indonesian militia leader. His nephew, Jose Tavares (son of Joao), is currently Indonesia's ambassador to New Zealand.
In 2003 Tavares and numerous others were indicted by the United Nations’ Serious Crimes Unit and the Court of Dili District for crimes against humanity. In 2004 he and others were indicted by the Court of Dili District's Special Panel for Serious Crimes for further crimes against humanity for their part in organising and implementing the campaign of violence in Bobonaro District in 1999.
These indictments are still valid according to Timor-Leste law. However, it appears Timorese authorities either did not know Tavares was on an extended visit to Timor-Leste, or they chose to look the other way and not arrest him. In recent days, family members of Tavares’ victims were told that the prosecutors could not find the documents relating to Tavares indictments for crimes against humanity.
In 2009 Maternus Bere, another ex-militia leader also indicted for crimes against humanity, was arrested in Cova Lima when found to have entered Timor-Leste. Even though Bere was considerably junior to Tavares in the militia hierarchy, it caused a diplomatic incident with Indonesia. In controversial circumstances Indonesia successfully pressured Timorese authorities to release Bere and allow him to return to West Timor, Indonesia.
Significantly, the visit to Timor-Leste immediately preceded or coincided with Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s state visit to Dili from 25-27 August. Both visits coincided with the 15th anniversary of the referendum resulting in Timor-Leste independence from Indonesian occupation; 8 and 9 September mark the 15th anniversary commemorations for the Maliana Police Station and Mulau massacres, in which Tavares played a role.
One has to question if Tavares’ visit proceeded without incident due to the authorities’ incompetence or their connivance. It also leaves one wondering if Tavares is still in Timor-Leste or not. Furthermore, it is well known that dozens of other indictees are poised to return to Dili, as these days the grass is greener in Timor-Leste than it is in Indonesia. The petroleum-fueled economy holds the promise of US dollars for well-connected Timorese elites irrespective of what side of the political equation they were on in 1999.
In 2010, this author wrote about some of Tavares’ victims in 1999, and it's clear no progress in getting justice has been made since. What tales would Tavares tell if he was forced to have his day in court?