Brief description:

Dozens of extrajudicial exectutions were carried out in a violent repression of a peaceful demonstration, with systematic executions of demonstrators, mostly  students, even if already wounded.

Time: 12 November 1991

Location: Santa Cruz cemetery, Dili, Timor Leste.


An unknown number of civilians

Rights violated:

 * right to life

Chain of events:

(Source: the proceedings of the civil suit in USA ).: [T]he history of Indonesian repression in East Timor is extensive, dates back to the 1975 invasion, and is largely the responsibility of military forces. Such a history belies Indonesian government claims that the Santa Cruz massacre was an isolated incident, an unfortunate aberration in an otherwise acceptable pattern of behavior by government security forces, claims which Amnesty International has described as "far from the truth." Instead, as we have noted, the "massacre was only the most widely publicized case of political killings in East Timor." [Amnesty International report, February 1993]

A mass for Sebastiao Gomes was scheduled for November 12, 1991, two weeks after his murder, to be followed by a funeral procession from the church to the Santa Cruz cemetery. (...) According to internal military reports, the Indonesian military knew in advance that the organizers planned to a stage a protest on the way to the cemetery. Witness Nairn: "It was a 'public secret' that the Timorese resistance was preparing a demonstration. Even many people abroad were aware of the heated atmosphere." [witness expert Liong]. Robert Muntz, Bamadhaj and several other foreigners in Dili decided to attend the mass and procession with cameras and tape recorders in the hope that their presence would deter the military from violence. [Witness Muntz].

Several thousand people gathered at the church, with a palpable sense of tension in the air. [Muntz]. Military troops were stationed all along the route of the march. The procession was peaceful, with chants of "Free East Timor." Amnesty International's investigation of the massacre confirmed that "there was absolutely no physical provocation." [Expert witness Robinson].

As the procession arrived at the Santa Cruz cemetery, there were no soldiers in sight. Moments later, however, truckloads of soldiers with rifles appeared and sealed off the exit route, while another group of soldiers holding M-16 rifles in front of them marched up along the route the procession had taken. Eyewitness Allan Nairn describes what happened:

I, together with [another U.S. journalist] went and stood between the soldiers and the crowd. I thought that we could act as a shield for the Timorese, since the troops would see that we were obviously foreign reporters. But the soldiers did not stop. They never broke their marching stride. They just kept coming. They proceeded in discipline and relative quiet. The soldiers issued no warning, they did not attempt to make the Timorese disperse. There was no interaction between them and the crowd. The ranks of soldiers simply marched up to us--we were standing in the middle of the road--enveloped us and swept right past us. As they got a step of two beyond us (we were about 15 yards in front of the Timorese), the front rank raised their rifles to their shoulders all at once and opened fire into the stunned, retreating people. But the Timorese were hemmed in by the cemetery walls, by the narrowness of the road and their own numbers.

In an instant the street was covered with falling bodies and spurting blood. Each rank of soldiers kept pouring in rifle fire. They were aiming and shooting people in the back. They vaulted fallen bodies to cut down those who were still standing. The firing was thorough and systematic. [Nairn Decl. at 41-42].

After the initial burst of gunfire, the army systematically executed the wounded, over the course of hours. [Id. at 46].

Eyewitnesses reported that the executions continued at the military hospital: Troops came in among the wounded Timorese and finished them off with iron bars, guns, and knives. Some were suffocated by shoving their heads into pails of blood and vomit.... These executions continued over the course of days and were part of a coordinated operation. [at 47].

Nairn himself was badly beaten by the soldiers, who fractured his skull with their rifle butts, seized cameras and tape recorders from him and his colleague and threatened to execute them. [Id. at 43].

They escaped only when they convinced the soldiers that they were from the United States, and slipped out of the country to report the massacre to the outside world. [Id.]

As a result of the presence of Nairn and his colleague and other foreigners, the Santa Cruz massacre was widely publicized. One expert, viewing the massacre in the context of years of gross human rights abuses in East Timor, notes, "only the presence of foreign journalists made the event at Santa Cruz cemetery unique." [expert witness Liong].

Allegedly responsible:

  • Maj. Gen. Sintong Panjaitan, commander of Udayana military region.

Investigations and procedures:

A Honorary Military Council suspended Sintong Panjaitan. A civil lawsuit in the USA gave a verdict of US$ 14 million in 1994, but this can only be effectuated when Sintong Panjaitan enters the US.