22 Oct 2014

AFP drop 'Balibo Five' investigation

1:36 pm on 22 October 2014

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has dropped a war crimes investigation into the deaths of five journalists - two Australians, two Britons and one New Zealander - in Timor Leste in 1975.

The AFP said there was "insufficient evidence to prove an offence", after their five year investigation into the deaths of the journalists known as the "Balibo Five".

The house where the journalists were allegedly killed by Indonesian forces.

The house where the journalists were allegedly killed by Indonesian forces. Photo: RNZ / Shannon Gillies

The AFP opened an investigation into the deaths of Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, Britons Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, and New Zealander Gary Cunningham in 2009.

It followed a 2007 coroner's finding in Australia that said the men had been murdered by soldiers, and were not caught in crossfire as the Indonesian authorities allege.

But this is not accepted by relatives of the dead men and the New Zealand government also wants further information with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade saying it is contacting its counterpart in Australia.

The AFP declined to be interviewed but issued this statement.

A replica of the Australian flag painted on one of the houses in the central Balibo District in an attempt to provide protection for the five journalists.

A replica of the Australian flag painted on one of the houses in the central Balibo District in an attempt to provide protection for the five journalists. Photo: RNZ / Shannon Gillies

"The AFP has conducted an extensive review of the investigation.

During the investigation the AFP identified challenges associated with establishing jurisdiction. The investigation continued in an effort to overcome those issues.

However, the AFP has concluded that there is currently insufficient evidence to prove an offence.

As a result, the AFP has exhausted all inquiries in relation to this matter and will be taking no further action."

This view has been met with anguish by family members of the men who died.

John Milkins, son of New Zealand cameraman Gary Cunningham, said the police decision is unjustified. He said there had been a clear breach of international laws on the protection of unarmed citizens.

"That's very clearly what happened from the coroners finding in 2007. She interviewed a lot of eye witnesses and said that the Balibo Five were shot, or stabbed, deliberately by Indonesian soldiers. Many eye witnesses from both the Timorese and the Indonesian side confirmed that."

Mr Milkins suggests New Zealand could pick up the case.

He said any country can bring a human rights and international war crimes case before the Hague, but it seems to have fallen to a reluctant Australian government.

Paul Stewart was 15 when his brother, sound recordist Tony Stewart, was killed alongside Mr Cunningham.

Mr Stewart's mother died last week, and he is glad she is not around to hear the announcement the AFP have abandoned its case.

He said the decision is typical of the shabby treatment the families of the dead journalists have received for 40 years.

Looking out towards Savu Sea from the Portuguese fort in Balibo.

Looking out towards Savu Sea from the Portuguese fort in Balibo. Photo: RNZ / Shannon Gillies

"We've just been lied to. They come up with excuses all the time. It's not really surprising to us that they've done this."

Mr Stewart said his family was informed about the investigation coming to an end by a phone call.

This follows one phone call Mr Stewart said he'll forever be bitter about.

"The one phone call my mum ever got from the Australian Federal Government regarding my brother's death was a guy from foreign affairs rung to say where do we send the bill for the coffin. That's been it for 40 years."

Former defence minister Phil Goff said the decision is intensely disappointing for all the victims that suffered at the time of the Indonesian invasion and occupation.

He says Timor Leste is a small country that lost tens of thousands of its people, both through the human induced famine and through the arbitrary execution and killings of those who opposed the invasion and occupation.

"Like so many wars this is a situation again where those who committed crimes against humanity and war crimes will escape with impunity and that is to be deeply regretted."

Mr Milkins, meanwhile, said this is not just a matter of justice for the Balibo Five, or another journalist who died, Roger East.

He said it concerns all people, overwhelmingly East Timorese, who perished during 24 years of Indonesian occupation.