Tuesday, May 08, 2007

East Timor's Balibo Five Mystery Remains

The author, outside the "Balibo House" in Balibo, East Timor. In 1975, this is where the so-called Balibo Five spent their last night before Balibo was attacked by Indonesian soldiers. The House is now a museum dedicated to the memory of the five Australian-based newsmen.

This just in from the AFP:
May 8th - Sydney Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam on Tuesday appeared at a coroner's inquest into the death of an Australian journalist killed with four colleagues in East Timor 32 years ago.

The 90-year-old former leader of the centre-left Labor Party, who held office from 1972-75, testified for three hours at the inquest into the death of cameraman Brian Peters at the East Timor border town of Balibo in October 1975.

Officials maintain the so-called "Balibo Five" were killed in crossfire during a skirmish ahead of Indonesia's invasion of East Timor but their families insist they were murdered and there was a cover-up by Canberra and Jakarta.

Whitlam denied he had prior intelligence warning the journalists would be targeted by the Indonesian military in Balibo, Australian Associated Press reported. He said he learned about the men's deaths on October 21 -- five days after they were killed -- and had not seen diplomatic cables sent before that date suggesting they had been executed by the Indonesian military.

Asked whether anyone told him the five journalists had been killed in the orders of the Indonesian military, Whitlam replied: "No." Whitlam said he had twice warned a member of the group, cameraman Greg Shackleton, not to travel to East Timor because there was nothing his government could do to protect them there. "I warned him the Australian government had no way of protecting him or his colleagues," Whitlam told the court. "I assumed Greg Shackleton would have taken notice of my warnings. I assumed he would have warned his colleagues." "It would have been very irresponsible if he didn't, then he would be culpable."

Deputy coroner Dorelle Pinch warned lawyers at the inquest on Monday that they could not question Whitlam about any potential cover-up of the men's deaths because the issue went beyond the parameters of her inquiry. Outside the court, Shackleton's widow, Shirley, described Whitlam's evidence as "bizarre" and said it had little value because the former prime minister claimed he could not remember vital details. Shirley Shackleton, who has led a decades-long campaign to find the truth behind her husband's death, also dismissed Whitlam's statement that he warned her partner about travel to East Timor. "He is totally despicable," she told reporters. "Dead men can't tell stories, so it's left to their poor old wives to do it for them."


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