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Mr. Brian Peters

Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2008

I am pleased to have secured this debate and am absolutely delighted that it is under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow.

On 1 February 2006, I secured a debate on the events in East Timor in 1975. Today’s debate covers the same ground, but it does so in the light of recent events that have revealed additional information. In 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor and subsequently illegally occupied it for 24 years, until 1999. Following two and a half years of UN administration, East Timor finally celebrated its official independence as Timor-Leste in 2002. Sadly, it remains in the news, not least because of the recent attempts to kill President Ramos-Horte, who is now recovering. His country’s commission on reception, truth and reconciliation found that in the period from the lead-up to the invasion and throughout the invasion and the subsequent time in power of the Indonesians, East Timor endured up to 183,000 more deaths than would have been expected.

All those deaths are important, but I want to concentrate on the so-called Balibo five. In particular, I will argue—just as I did two years ago—that the UK Government at that time and in subsequent years had been involved in a disgraceful cover-up. Before turning to the most recent events, which cast further light on those deaths, a bit of background may be helpful.

Portuguese Timor, as East Timor was then, became the focus for Indonesian destabilisation in 1974. A civil war from August to September 1975 killed more than 1,000 people. In control by then was a left-wing movement, Fretilin. Instability and unrest remained. Into this situation flew two British citizens, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie. They worked for the late Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine network. They headed for the East Timorese border town of Balibo. There, on 13 October 1975, they met three other journalists who were working for the rival Channel Seven network. Three days later all five were dead.

As I said in the earlier debate:

“When Britons die abroad we anticipate our Government doing all they can to help the relatives. We expect the Government to seek as much information as possible and to share it with the relatives. Sadly, in this case, the opposite happened. From 1975 until 1995, there was almost complete inaction. The Government were involved in a disgraceful cover-up.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 1 February 2006; Vol. 456, c. 97WH.]

Efforts, by friends, family and campaigners, such as my constituent Hugh Dowson, to uncover the truth about how the Balibo five died were continually frustrated. By the time of my last debate, we knew that plans were in hand for an inquest into the death of Brian Peters, one of the two British journalists, in New South Wales in Australia.

It was an inquest that should have been held long ago and could have been, had our Foreign Office told the British families in 1975 and 1976 what it really knew from its own sources and from Ramos-Horta about the deaths at Balibo. The inquest has now taken place and the state coroner, Dorelle Pinch, issued her report last November. Coroner Pinch’s report and her findings also apply to the other Briton, Malcolm Rennie, the New Zealander and both Australians.

In responding to my 2006 parliamentary debate, the then Minister for Europe, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander) hoped the inquest would

“reach a clear conclusion about what happened on 16 October 1975.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 1 February 2006; Vol. 456, c. 103WH.]

The coroner found that Brian Peters was “deliberately killed”, and she named those responsible. She said that Peters died

“from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by...Indonesian Special Forces”—

including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah. She said that Brian Peters was killed

“on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo.”

She also found

“strong circumstantial evidence that those orders emanated from the Head of the Indonesian Special Forces, Major-General Benny Murdani to Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, Special Forces Group Commander in Timor, and then to Captain Yosfiah.”

Murdani and Kalbuadi are dead. The other two are not. After diplomatic training in Britain, Yosfiah became a general and, later, a Government Minister. The coroner invited him, several times, to give evidence in person or by video link, but he declined.

The coroner concluded that an international conflict was under way once Indonesian forces seized territory in East Timor on 7 October 1975. She stated that thereafter

“the Fourth Geneva Convention (Protection of Civilian Persons in time of War, 1949)”

protected journalists. She said that under that convention, the killings were

“‘grave breaches’ under Article 147 and may be prosecuted as war crimes.”

Thus, by the time the Balibo five were illegally killed, the Geneva convention was applicable and so those responsible are guilty of war crimes. Given that finding, the coroner referred the case to Australia’s Attorney-General. Australia’s Director of Public Prosecutions will determine whether to prosecute. Given the inquest’s thoroughness, the DPP has strong grounds to decide whether the surviving Indonesian nationals have a case to answer and whether they should be brought to justice.

The coroner also helps us to have a better understanding of the role of others, including the British and Australian Governments, at the time. The coroner concluded that in 1975, despite the Balibo murders, the Australian Government continued the “charade” required

“to sustain the myth that there were no Indonesian troops in East Timor.”

Britain had a key role in that myth, as documents released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2002 show. On 15 September 1975, a month before the deaths of the Balibo five, John Ford, our ambassador to Jakarta, told the FCO that Indonesia’s Generals planned

“to step up clandestine intervention designed to look like popular uprisings...The only limitation on clandestine activity now appears to be fear of its exposure.”

Australian documents show that the FCO advised the Australians on 2 October 1975 that the UK Government would not protest over subsequent Indonesian action in East Timor. Two days later, in a “secret” telegram from the ambassador to the FCO and the Ministry of Defence, Mr. Ford described the military forces ready to invade East Timor. He added that Indonesia’s Defence Ministry awaited

“incidents in the next few days that would finally persuade”

Indonesia’s President to authorise “early overt action”.

So, to one of two Indonesian generals whom he knew was in charge of the takeover, Mr. Ford

“stressed the dangers of overt armed intervention particularly so far as Indonesia’s position in the UN and with public opinion in the West was concerned.”

In other words, Britain did nothing to prevent the planned invasion and went further by recommending that it be kept covert. Keeping something covert means keeping journalists out of the way. Indeed, the inquest findings comment on that. Intelligence officials testified under oath at the inquest; sometimes, on national security grounds, that was done in closed session. Also in closed-session deliberations was, on subpoena, intelligence material located by long searches and covered by public interest immunity. The coroner states that the closed testimonies and intelligence material show that “from early October” 1975, the Indonesians were

“highly sensitive to the presence of any journalists (both foreign and domestic) in the border area”.

However, we know that some 20 journalists were in Balibo between mid-September and mid-October 1975. The Balibo five were among them, specifically to investigate whether Indonesian troops took part in the 7 October seizure of a nearby hamlet in East Timor. Balibo was then attacked and the Balibo five were deliberately killed.

The Australians knew of the attack in advance. The Australian Government admitted in 2002 that their officials were informed by the Indonesians on 13 and 15 October 1975 that Balibo would be seized covertly by Indonesian troops on 15 and 16 October, which is what happened. They also quickly found out about the deaths. As the coroner’s report shows, key Australian officials and Ministers knew the main facts about the deaths within 48 hours. From the closed material, including an Australian intelligence review, we can see that they even knew who led the attack. The material reveals that

“Yunus Yosfiah was the field commander in charge of the attack”

on Balibo.

What did the British Government know and what did they do to uncover the truth? They knew a lot, but for a long time did very little. Responding in the 2006 debate, the then Minister implied that the UK Government were not aware of the deaths until their embassy’s report of 24 October 1975. The report claimed that the Balibo five were killed

“almost certainly inadvertently”.

Already at that time, and contrary to the truth, comments were being made that reduced any need for further investigation, but, worse, it seems that we did not want to know more. It appears that our diplomats

“suggested to the Australians that…it is pointless to go on demanding information from the Indonesians”.

The report notes that Australia’s embassy was

“inclined to agree but…apparently under pressure from Canberra”.

Our own ambassador, Mr. Ford, suggested that

“we should ourselves avoid representations to the Indonesians about them”,

to which the FCO replied, “We agree”.

From the start, the Australian Government faced press demands to denounce the killings. As a result, Jakarta halted its covert operation to await the response. The Indonesian military was at the time holding on to the British passports of the two dead British journalists, but there was no British response or reaction. Even after 13 November 1975, when the British ambassador informed the FCO that Indonesia’s intelligence supremo had given the British passports to the Australian ambassador, Britain’s silence continued.

It gets worse. How can anyone justify the subsequent advice from Ambassador Ford to the FCO to deny knowledge of atrocities committed by Indonesian troops in December 1975 after the invasion of East Timor? By January 1976, he had even offered advice to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry on how to hide those atrocities. To compound the cover-up and to add insult to injury, his 15 March 1976 in-depth analysis of the East Timor crisis claimed that Britain’s policy

“has so far paid off handsomely. The lack of involvement has largely kept Timor out of the British and US headlines and away from becoming a major public issue”.

That dispatch also confirmed that the Balibo attack was an Indonesian military operation.

The FCO stonewalled. These two examples from FCO documents from 1975 and 1976, which were released in 2002, illustrate that point. First, A Canberra-based British official reported to the FCO on 30 April 1976 that he had suggested to a senior Australian official that

“it would serve little purpose”

if Australian public statements

“made too much of the fact that two of the journalists were British”.

Secondly, one of the Australian officials who was briefed in advance by the Indonesians on the Balibo attack was Allan Taylor. In 1976, the Australian Government chose him to lead a cover-up operation on the Balibo five. His report purported to find no Indonesian involvement.

Our own Government’s lack of interest in seeking the truth also continued for many years, as I said. During the 2006 debate, I was reminded that when Brian Peters’ sister, Maureen Tolfree, was given a range of papers on the issue in 1995, it was to reassure her

“of the Foreign Office’s transparency about this case”.

I was told that

“she was given a collection of unclassified documents detailing what we knew about her brother’s death”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 1 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 101-102WH.]

Not one of those documents, however, acknowledges what the FCO really knew about the deaths. The papers on that 1995 meeting, which were released to me in 2006 following that debate, show that the FCO’s real concern in 1995 was to persuade Maureen Tolfree and her MP

“that discussion should focus on the consular aspects of the case—the only legitimate claim Mrs Tolfree has to request a call on Ministers”.

There are many other aspects of the cover-up—even apparently less important matters seem to have been subjected to it. For example, until 1999 our Parliament was told that the Balibo five were part of a single TV crew, but the FCO’s documentation for the 1995 meeting with Maureen Tolfree notes that the burial plot in Jakarta for the Balibo five newsmen’s remains is maintained

“at the expense of Channel 7 (the Australian TV channel which employed 3 of the journalists)”.

It was therefore known in 1995 that it was not a single TV crew, yet the public utterances until 1999 said otherwise.

What should be done now that we have had the coroner’s report? The case is closed as far as Indonesia’s Government are concerned. They first did that right back in 1975, because, in part, of the UK stance of doing and saying nothing. However, Australia’s Government are considering action on the findings and recommendations. What about our Government? Our stance was a disaster for Indonesia and East Timor, and it must end. The conduct of the dead journalist’s Government is, for Indonesia’s military, a litmus test on where we stand on the issue of impunity, which matters. The men named in the coroner’s findings are implicated in later atrocities, not only regarding the Balibo five. Moreover, East Timor’s UN-initiated commission for reception, truth and reconciliation concluded, as I mentioned, that between 1974 and 1999, up to 183,000 more East Timorese died than would be expected in normal times.

The commission made 15 calls to the international community. One was for action by the Governments involved, including Britain’s, to resolve the Balibo five case and that of another international journalist killed in East Timor in 1975. The UK stance on Balibo to date means that no effort has been made to bring to justice those directly implicated in the illegal killing of the Balibo five, which was also a war crime. What signal does that send to those who would consider murdering journalists? Around the world, from 1996 to 2006, more than 1,000 journalists were murdered. In 90 per cent. of those cases, no one has faced justice. More has to be done, and action must now be taken.

I have some questions for the Minister. First, will she acknowledge that Brian Peters’ sister had to overcome an FCO smokescreen to obtain the inquest? Surely the FCO should have been working with the relatives. Secondly, will the Minister involve relatives in determining a way forward and agree it with them? Thirdly, as part of that, will she endorse the coroner’s report? Fourthly, will she invite the Indonesian Government to endorse the report? Fifthly, will she insist that those accused of the murders face justice, through, if necessary, a UK initiative for Interpol to issue warrants for the two surviving Indonesians who were named by the coroner? Sixthly, will she institute a fundamental review of the FCO’s conduct of the case?

Finally, will the Minister review the relevant materials on the Balibo deaths? It has been a sorry saga and the way in which it was handled is a disgrace, but I hope that we can at least make progress today.

I apologise to the House for my lack of voice; I hope my voice will last throughout my speech. Indeed, Mr. Bercow, you had to listen to it during a previous debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on securing the debate. It is on a matter on which he has a long-standing and, as we heard, a passionate interest.

I express my condolences to the family of Brian Peters, as well as to the families of the four other journalists killed—Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Gary Cunningham. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office followed closely the Australian inquest into the death of Brian Peters, which was concluded on 16 November 2007. Staff from the British consulate-general in Sydney regularly attended hearing days at the Sydney coroner’s court, and were present when the findings were handed down. Throughout, they remained in close touch with the family of Brian Peters.

The circumstances surrounding the tragic deaths of the five journalists have been the subject of some controversy for many years. The Indonesian Government maintained that the men were killed in crossfire between rival Timorese groups. However, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, there were persistent allegations that the journalists were deliberately killed by Indonesian troops to prevent them from reporting the extent of clandestine Indonesian involvement in what was then ostensibly a civil war.

Public interest in the Balibo case was reawakened in 1994 when John Pilger’s TV documentary “Death of a Nation” was first aired. The documentary was mainly about the 1992 Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor, but it referred to the Balibo five, reporting claims that the journalists had been tortured and killed by Indonesian soldiers.

Papers released by the FCO to the National Archives show that on 17 October 1975 our embassy in Jakarta reported unconfirmed news stories that Balibo had been captured by anti-Fretilin forces. The papers also showed that on 24 October 1975 the embassy reported news received from Australia that journalists had been killed.

The telegram issued by our embassy in Jakarta in 1975 recorded what we then knew of the journalists’ deaths, which included the fact that they had been with Fretilin forces when the house in which they were sheltering was hit and set on fire, that press pictures of the house had been published and that it was understood that they had been

“killed, almost certainly inadvertently, in the course of an attack by Indonesian/UDT forces”.

It was believed then and during the following years that the journalists had been killed in crossfire between opposing groups fighting in East Timor.

The FCO documents from that time, now released to the National Archives, show that the FCO was aware of the fact that there were clandestine operations in East Timor in October 1975, but not of the details of those operations. Our records show that we were not aware of the journalists’ presence in Balibo before their deaths.

We have not withheld any information that would shed further light on how the five journalists died. All the documents that can be released into the public domain by the FCO on the issue have now been released. The FCO has always striven to be as open and transparent as possible about the information that we hold on the incident. That is why, in 2002, documents relating to the incident were released exceptionally early to permit the relatives of Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters to see at first hand what the FCO knew about the deaths.

The FCO files from the period indicate that the Government’s policy was not to intervene directly in the controversy surrounding the future of East Timor but to engage the Indonesian Government on the need for democratic outcomes. The United Kingdom never recognised the Indonesian annexation of the country. We constantly worked through the United Nations to seek a resolution that would fully protect the interests of the people of East Timor.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the developments after the coroner’s findings in New South Wales. It is worth clarifying the matter. There have been no inquests into the deaths in the United Kingdom as there is no legal authority for coroners in the UK to look into a death if there are no remains in their jurisdiction. Under New South Wales legislation, however, coroners can conduct an inquest into the death of someone who was resident in the territory, as Mr. Peters was, even in the absence of remains.

The findings of the New South Wales coroner—that the five were killed deliberately by Indonesian troops—were the outcome of an independent judicial process run by the state coroner’s court. The coroner stated that she would refer the matter to the Australian Attorney-General, as the hon. Gentleman said. The Attorney-General has the authority to launch prosecutions, and he will decide how to take matters forward.

The Government have had contact with the families of the two deceased British journalists on a number of occasions since the men’s deaths.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; it will give her a slight break. She rightly referred, as I did, to the fact that the Attorney-General would look into the issue and that the Director of Public Prosecutions would decide how to proceed. Will it be the Minister’s intention to urge the DPP to bring prosecutions?

It is not for the United Kingdom Government to take forward the findings of the coroner’s proceedings in Australia or to comment on their accuracy. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have paid close attention to the progress of the inquest, and I plan to ask the Australian authorities at a suitable opportunity how they plan to respond to the inquest’s recommendations.

The Government have had contact with the families of the two deceased British journalists on a number of occasions, including meetings with FCO Ministers. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Minister for Pensions Reform, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O’Brien), then Minister of State for Trade, Investment and Foreign Affairs, met the relatives of Mr. Rennie and Mr. Peters in September 2003 and March 2004 to hear their concerns. Our consular officials wrote to the families of Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie to inform them about developments following the conclusion of the New South Wales coroner’s inquest, and they will continue to liaise with them on any future developments. I believe that that shows how seriously the Government are taking the case. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to do so.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of specific questions with me, and to demonstrate our commitment and to look at the issue further, I offer to meet him and, if they wish, the families of the two British journalists killed, to discuss the outcome of the Australian inquest. Once again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Five o’clock.