Notorious East Timorese militia leader Eurico Guterres went on trial on Tuesday over violence last year in Indonesian West Timor in what is seen as a test of Jakarta’s resolve to rein in the ferocious gangs.
Guterres, 27-year-old head of the feared Aitarak militia, is accused of inciting a rampage late last year in Atambua, a West Timor border town, which forced two United Nations observers to flee to East Timor.
The observers were investigating the killing in the town of three U.N. aid workers which was widely blamed on East Timorese militiamen opposed to their homeland’s break from Jakarta rule a year earlier.
“All I want to say is that I am proud to have been arrested and put in jail in the effort to fight for my home East Timor to be part of Indonesia,” an emotional Gutteres told reporters after his trial was adjourned until next Tuesday.
The militia leader, his long hair sprouting over the back of his camouflage uniform, shook hands confidently with judges when he entered the courtroom earlier.
Gutteres was not asked to enter a plea to the charges, which carry a maximum five years in jail and a small fine.
In 1999, his gang and others joined Indonesian troops in a campaign of destruction that followed an overwhelming vote in the impoverished territory to end more than 23 years of often brutal Indonesian rule.
They subsequently fled across the border into West Timor where they have continued to harass some 100,000 East Timorese refugees they herded there after the independence vote.
Hundreds of troops and police secured the Jakarta court, which was packed with dozens of Guterres supporters waving flags, chanting slogans and singing the Indonesian national anthem.
“I understand the indictment but I don’t understand it either,” Gutteres said to applause and cheers from supporters when the judge asked if he understood the charges.
Guterres supporters, many also wearing military camouflage, carried placards in the courtroom which read “Eurico is a hero of red and white” — the colours of the Indonesian flag — and “Eurico, the hero of integration”.
The Atambua murders of the U.N. aid workers triggered international anger against Jakarta’s failure to control the loyalist gangs, and the trial is the first related to recent violence in the Indonesian half of the small island of Timor.
Despite his notorious reputation among the international community and many East Timorese, the youthful Guterres is considered a patriot by some nationalist groups and legislators in Indonesia.
The Atambua incident in which militiamen loyal to Jakarta rioted at a weapons handover ceremony and took some guns back came three weeks after a gang of militiamen killed the U.N. workers.
Jakarta has said six suspects will go on trial for the Atambua killings, but none has yet come to court.