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Letter to Brendan Nelson MP
2 March 2006
Congratulations on your appointment as Minister for Defence.
Your appointment strengthens my confidence that still outstanding serious issues raised with your predecessor, Senator Robert Hill, and members of the Australian Defence Forces, will now be quickly resolved.
As I think you’re aware, the ADF held a press conference in Canberra in April, 2003 to announce that it had concluded a 31/2 year investigation into unspecified allegations, involving the torture and execution of Indonesian militia prisoners by Australian troops in East Timor in 1999, and that the allegations had not been substantiated.
The ADF investigation had apparently been carried-out in response to persistent reports coming out of Indonesia at the time, as well as to stories circulating within the British, New Zealand and Australian armies.
Shadow Defence Minister, Senator Chris Evans, sought further information regarding the allegations and the ADF investigation during a Foreign Affairs and Defence Senate Committee hearing in June, 2003 however, the Australian Army would confirm only that a charge of ‘kicking a body’ had been brought against a member of the SAS but this had subsequently been dropped when witnesses from the New Zealand Army had refused to give evidence.
On November 5, 2003, the SBS Dateline broadcast a program detailing accusations by three former Indonesian militiamen regarding their treatment whilst prisoners of Australian forces in East Timor, including allegations of abuse, torture and the unexplained disappearance of a fourth prisoner, Mr Yani Ndun.
Whilst Dateline had provided the Australian Army with full details concerning the allegations prior to their program broadcast, it refused to comment or appear on the program. That same afternoon however, the Chief of the Army announced that a second investigation into the allegations would be launched.
On May 5, 2004, Dateline broadcast a follow-up program that contrasted the urgent and public investigations pursued by the US government into allegations of torture of US prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, with the apparent failure of the Australian government and the ADF to pursue similar investigations into the East Timor allegations.
Indeed, as the follow-up program pointed out, the Australian Army could not even confirm whether an investigator had been appointed to pursue the matter, in keeping with Army Chief, Lt-Gen Peter Leahy’s public announcement some six months before.
In addition, Dateline confirmed that none of the witnesses identified in its original program had been approached by Australian authorities to investigate the allegations.
Lt-Gen Leahy, Minister for Defence, Robert Hill and Assistant Minister, Mal Brough, all refused Dateline’s request for an interview on the matter and no spokesperson from the Australian Army was available to appear on the program.
In responding to Dateline queries as to the ADF’s progress with its alleged investigation, the Assistant Minister, Mal Brough, alleged that inquiries had not progressed because the program had not provided adequate assistance. This notwithstanding the fact that Dateline had provided full information on the whereabouts of witnesses to the Australian Army at the time its original program aired.
For the past 2 years, I have corresponded with the Prime Minister, John Howard, the former Minister for Defence, Senator Robert Hill, Army Chief, Lt-Gen Peter Leahy, the Chief of the Defence Forces, Gen Peter Cosgrove, in an effort to obtain details of the 18 specific allegations made against members of the ADF; an update on the progress of the ADF’s investigations and details as to what resources had been deployed to mount them.
The responses to my inquiries to-date have been varied and illuminating - in a fashion.
As always, John Howard’s office confirmed that he was too busy to address the matter and his office confirmed that my enquiries had been referred to the Minister for Defence.
The Minister for Defence, Senator Robert Hill, refused to address my correspondence, although his Chief of Staff, Matt Brown, did respond on his behalf, with the arrogant and dismissive suggestion that I should check the Defence Department’s website for relevant information. After pursuing further clarification from Brown, I was directed to the announcement made by the Army Chief on November 5, 2003: the announcement of the second ADF investigation into the affair.
Gen Cosgrove and Army Chief, Lt-Gen Peter Leahy, both replied to my correspondence and confirmed that an investigation into the unspecified allegations was ‘in progress’.
I sought further clarification from Lt-Gen Peter Leahy, in particular asking him to confirm:
“...whether the scope of the current investigation includes:
In the event that the scope of the current ADF investigation does include those matters, could you please confirm:
Given that the incidents under investigation date back to 1999, that the current investigation has been underway for 18 months and that you are unable to predict when the investigation will be completed, could you please confirm what human resources have been specifically deployed by the ADF to pursue the investigation?”
Some 5 months later, I received a response to my letter to Lt-Gen Leahy from a Major Duus. In his letter of October 24, 2005, Major Duus responded to my questions as follows:
“...the investigation into allegations dating back into Australia’s involvement in INTERFET in 1999 will take some time and Army is not able to supply information that may compromise the investigative process.
The questions you have asked in your letter dated June 3, 2005 fall under information that may compromise the investigative process. It is not appropriate for Army to answer or comment on the questions you have asked at this stage.”
So, seven years after unspecified allegations, including brutality, torture and suspected murder, were made against members of our ADF whilst serving in East Timor, the Australian Army and Department of Defence still will not confirm the precise nature of the allegations; the scope of its investigations; the level and nature of resources deployed in pursuing those investigations or an estimate as to when those investigations are likely to be concluded.
Whilst the ADF and Department of Defence have been diligently pursuing their endless secret enquiries into these matters, the UN has initiated, completed and reported on the UN Oil For Food Scandal.
Similarly, the Pentagon has launched and completed investigations; charged and tried US servicemen and women for acts of torture and brutality perpetrated against hundreds of Iraqi and Afghan detainees, committed four years after the ADF and Department of Defence began their investigations into the East Timor allegations.
David Hicks, the Australian detainee held and tortured at Guantanamo Bay for the past four years will shortly face his “show trial” and even the trial of Saddam Hussein has made progress: all whilst the ADF and the Defence Department continue their investigations into the 7 year-old East Timor allegations.
I’m sure that you’d agree that it appears that the ADF and the Department of Defence have engaged in a deliberate attempt to cover-up these events, apparently in the belief that they would likely bring disgrace on members of the ADF, senior members of the Defence establishment and your government.
However, in doing so, they have wilfully jeopardised the integrity and reputation of every member of our Defence Forces, whilst demonstrating contempt for the values that so many of its members have sacrificed their lives for.
Elements of the ADF, including the SAS, are today serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, apparently blissfully unaware of the fact that their reputation has been forever stained by the failure of their chain of command to secure and uphold it.
Whilst the government moved quickly to set-up independent inquiries into the events surrounding the appalling DIMIA scandal and more recently, the AWB scandal, its former leader in the Senate and your predecessor as Minister for Defence, along with the ADF, has sought to maintain a veil of secrecy over the unspecified allegations of torture and possible execution of prisoners by the ADF in East Timor.
Your government’s insistence that the ADF be allowed to secretly investigate allegations made against its own members, whilst keeping details of those allegations and the progress of its supposed investigations secret – even from the Parliament – strongly suggests that your government has deliberately sought to cover-up criminal acts committed by members of our armed forces.
For your government to pretend that the ADF investigations into these matters are still incomplete after 7 years must mean that there is something significant to hide.
Worse still, the failure of your government and the ADF to resolve the matter effectively and efficiently, with complete transparency, means that the reputation and integrity of the ADF and all its members remain under a serious cloud.
And, through all of this, the human and legal rights of the former Indonesian militiamen who were allegedly tortured, along with their allegedly murdered compatriot, Mr Yani Ndun, have been callously ignored.
Brendan, I vividly recall the sincere and intense interest you showed when we met to discuss my concerns at the criminal treatment being meted-out on our fellow citizen, David Hicks, at the hands of the Bush Administration and with the connivance of our government.
I’m certain that your profound sense of justice can be relied upon to expedite completion of a transparent investigation into these long outstanding East Timor allegations.
I look forward to receiving the previously requested information, along with your assurances that this matter will be resolved promptly.
Thank you again for your assistance Brendan.