An Indonesian human rights court today sentenced an Indonesian army officer to five years in prison for failing to prevent killings in East Timor following its 1999 independence vote -- the first Indonesian military official convicted in the violence.

Lt. Col. Soedjarwo was found guilty of failing to prevent pro-Jakarta militiamen from attacking Roman Catholic archbishop Carlos Ximenes Belo's seaside home, which became a haven for East Timorese seeking shelter from militia violence surrounding the U.N.-sponsored referendum.

"The defendant has been found guilty of committing grave human rights violations," said Andi Samsan Nganro, chairman of the five-judge panel that issued the verdict.

Soedjarwo, who headed the military command in the East Timor capital, Dili, at the time of the violence, said through his attorney that he is innocent of the charges and will appeal.

Prosecutors had sought 10 years for Soedjarwo, who could have been sentenced to death. But the sentence reflected the fact that "he did his best to stop the violence," Nganro said.

However, Nganro said, "by the time he tried to stop it, it was already way too late."

An estimated 15 to 20 people were killed in the attack on Belo's home on Sept. 6, 1999, according to human rights groups and a court official. Belo had been flown to a safe location by police helicopter and eventually to Australia, a court official said. The court had hoped that Belo, who is ailing and has announced his resignation as archbishop, would testify by video link earlier this month. Instead, the judges relied on his written testimony.

Democracy activists called the surprise verdict a step in the right direction, noting the previous record of acquittals of 10 security officials, including six military officers, who had been indicted on charges stemming from the East Timor violence.

"It's a good sign because never before has any Indonesian officer received any sentence for failure to prevent killings such as in East Timor," said Helmy Fauzi, who led the National Commission on Human Rights investigation into the East Timor violence, which the United Nations estimated killed more than 1,000 civilians.

At the same time, they said, the sentence was far too lenient. "It's not enough," Fauzi said. "Not enough to restore credibility in the eyes of the international community or to restore hopes in the Indonesia society itself that we are able to handle our problem."

But Nganro called the verdict "fair." He acknowledged the criticisms, but said, "since the very beginning, we've never had any intention of pleasing a certain group of people. We're committed to paying great respect to human rights."

The United States suspended military aid to Indonesia because of the East Timor violence, and the Bush administration has said it wants to see Indonesia hold the military accountable for its actions.

Soedjarwo is one of 18 people charged; his is the third conviction -- the other two were civilians.

Lt. Col. Soedjarwo leaves court after being sentenced. He said through his attorney that he plans to appeal.