The Indonesian armed forces have welcomed an appeals court decision overturning the convictions of four officers charged with human rights crimes in East Timor, calling the decision a vindication of their position that there was no military involvement in the 1999 killings.
The ruling earlier this month means that all 15 defendants from the military and police forces have been cleared of responsibility in the violence that exploded after East Timorese voted against remaining a part of Indonesia. An estimated 1,500 people died.
But human rights activists, U.S. officials and foreign diplomats, who accuse the Indonesian military of orchestrating the militia violence, described the trials in Jakarta, the capital, as seriously flawed. A State Department spokesman said the U.S. government was "profoundly disappointed" in the appeals court's ruling.
Among the officers cleared was Maj. Gen. Adam Damiri, the military's chief operations officer. Damiri was the final defendant to come before the judges last year when he was sentenced to three years in prison. In 1999 he was commander of the region that included East Timor.
During the trials, Damiri was involved in running the military offensive in western Aceh province, where Indonesian combat troops are locked in a long, grinding campaign to suppress a separatist uprising. The court was forced to postpone four sessions because Damiri was too busy to attend, according to Antara, the official Indonesian news agency.
One of the other officials cleared by the appeals court was Brig. Gen. Noer Muis, Indonesia's last military commander in East Timor. A lower court had found him guilty of allowing pro-Indonesian militias to carry out attacks, including those on a pair of churches that killed at least 40 people.
Muis now serves at army headquarters and is responsible for providing "inspiration regarding improvement of professionalism in the matter of army development," according to chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsuddin.
Damiri and Muis have consistently said they were innocent of the human rights charges.
Along with an army colonel and a senior police officer, they were the only members of the security forces convicted. Officials did not explain why the appeals court reversed the convictions. Prosecutors said last week they were asking the Supreme Court to confirm the original verdicts.
Twelve military and police officers charged with human rights violations in East Timor remain active in the security forces. Only two civilians now face prison sentences for the East Timor abuses.
The Indonesian military maintains that involvement by soldiers and police in the violence is unproven. Sjamsuddin said the armed forces welcomed the acquittals, comparing their reaction to that of a father delighted "to see his son released from a prison sentence."
Moreover, he said the military believed the courts had followed the proper legal process. "The performance was based on fairness where all the defendants could defend what they had done," Sjamsuddin said in an interview at armed forces headquarters.
Sjamsuddin acknowledged that abuses occurred in East Timor while the military was deployed there, but said there was no evidence Indonesian security forces were responsible.
"We have to consider there was a crime because there were victims. But we cannot say that. . . . military personnel did human rights violations," he said. If human rights advocates make that allegation, he added, "We say, please prove it."
He said the military's plan for East Timor did not call for actions that could be classified as human rights abuses. "From the concept up to the implementation, there was no indication to do human rights violations," he said. "So that indicates that we were not the actors."
Sjamsuddin said those charged and acquitted of human rights violations have kept their positions and continued to receive senior assignments.
"They are still active," Sjamsuddin said, referring to the defendants. "They still do the same jobs as others."
Human rights advocates and foreign officials have criticized the trials, primarily blaming the lackluster and at-times incompetent performance by government prosecutors. They have also charged that security forces tried to intimidate judges and witnesses, for example, by allowing dozens of uniformed soldiers to attend proceedings to show support for their colleagues.
Senior military officials have repeatedly said they did not seek to improperly influence the proceedings.
Most of the current senior officers have not been implicated in human rights abuses. But Rizal Sukma, a military affairs analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, said he believed that there should be broad reforms, such as placing the armed forces under a civilian defense ministry.
Sjamsuddin, however, said the military extracted lessons from its experience in East Timor, including the need for Indonesia to adopt legislation giving the armed forces a clear legal mandate for its operations.
He said the armed forces also learned that it must redouble efforts to ensure that other Indonesia regions facing separatist uprisings would not break away. "We don't want it to happen any more, in Aceh, in Papua, in other provinces," he said.
Sjamsuddin dismissed criticism of the East Timor proceedings, including the concerns expressed by U.S. officials at the State Department and in Congress.
"Just let them talk. But we hope they see clearly . . . that this is the process in Indonesia," he said. "We are not using other countries' processes. This is sovereignty of our law."
Special correspondent Natasha Tampubolon contributed to this article.