Two men appeared in an East Timor court on Wednesday to face murder charges in the first cases linked to violence surrounding a 1999 vote for independence from Indonesian rule.
The preliminary hearings herald a breakthrough for East Timorese who have waited two years for justice following the violence in which the U.N. estimates more than 1,000 people were killed and 300,000 herded across the border into Indonesian West Timor.
"These are the first suspects to go before the serious crimes panel which deal with cases according to a number of criteria. One is that the crime was committed between the first of January and the 25th of October (1999)," spokesman Peter Biro told Reuters by telephone from the East Timor capital, Dili.
Almost 80 percent of East Timorese voted to break from Jakarta's harsh rule on August 30, 1999, in a U.N.-organised ballot that unleashed a wave of violence and destruction by militia gangs backed by elements of the Indonesian military.
The first trials for crimes against humanity involving 11 suspects are due by the end of the month.
Biro said one of the suspects in Wednesday's hearing was a member of a pro-Jakarta militia group and the other belonged to the former Falintil guerrilla army which fought against Indonesia's 23-year rule.
There were some massacres in the months ahead of the ballot but most of the bloodshed came after the vote result was announced.
"It's important that the trials start and that justice be brought to the people of East Timor. This is just the start of a series of indictments and hopefully convictions," Biro said.
Biro said 22 year-old militiaman Joao Fernandes, accused of killing a village chief on September 8, 1999, in the Maliana township, pleaded guilty and a sentence would be handed down on Tuesday.
The trial of Falintil member Hulio Fernandes, 30, accused of murdering a militiaman in the township of Gleno on September 26, was set for February 6.
Both face a maximum 20-year jail term.
LACK OF EVIDENCE
Efforts by East Timor's newly established legal system to bring those responsible to justice have been hampered by a lack of evidence and co-operation from Indonesia.
East Timor's chief prosecutor Mohamed Othman said the authorities were grappling with how to deal with key perpetrators of the violence who had fled to Indonesia.
"There are no Indonesian troops here anymore and even the Timorese who were in the TNI (Indonesian military) are not here...the U.N. and Indonesia are yet to decide how to deal with these cases," Othman said.
Five Indonesian policemen, including the former police chief of East Timor, have refused to be questioned by a U.N. team which is in Jakarta investigating 22 people connected with the bloodshed.
But some progress has been made in recent weeks.
Two suspects face trial in Indonesia on Thursday for the slaying of three U.N. aid workers in West Timor last September. The international community has been demanding action over the West Timor killings.
The two are among six East Timorese facing court over the September 6 violence in the border township of Atambua.
Notorious East Timor militia leader Eurico Guterres is also on trial in Jakarta over the Atambua violence.