December 28, 2009
DARWIN: Bones believed to be from the body of East Timor’s national hero Nicolau Lobato was forgotten and stored in Australia for five years.
As the remains lay in a Northern Territory police forensic centre, the East Timorese President, Jose Ramos-Horta, pressed Indonesia to return the body of Lobato, who was killed by Indonesian soldiers in 1978.
”In the name of our country and people, in the name of the state and of the family, I am asking here for the return of the body of Nicolau Lobato,” Mr Ramos-Horta said in a speech on August 30 marking the 10th anniversary of East Timor’s independence vote.
Territory police have kept bones believed to be those of Lobato since March 2004 when his family sent them to Darwin for forensic tests.
Three weeks after being questioned about the bones by the Herald, a police spokeswoman confirmed that three bones would soon undergo testing using new methods for the extraction of DNA from bones. A specialist contractor had been employed to do the work as part of a police and Coroner’s project to review 55 unidentified skeletal remains that have been stored in the NT since 1973.
The spokeswoman said after the bones arrived in Darwin in 2004 ”tests were done in the NT Police forensics laboratory on one section of bone but no DNA profile was able to be obtained and no report was completed to that effect”. The spokeswoman said police were now trying to contact Lobato’s family.
”While I can’t give you a timeframe on this testing, the project is expected to be completed early in the new year,” the spokeswoman said.
The body of Lobato, East Timor’s first prime minister and one of the founding members of the Fretilin Party, is a sensitive issue in relations between East Timor and Indonesia.
For years it was believed the body was buried in secret in Indonesia after the charismatic resistance leader was shot in an ambush in December 1978, three years after Indonesia invaded East Timor. But just before Christmas in 2003 workmen digging in the yard of the then prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, discovered remains that members of the Lobato family believed were those of Nicolau.
No head was found, which added to the family’s belief the remains were those of the national hero.
The former Indonesian president Soeharto is believed to have demanded that Lobato’s head be sent to Jakarta as proof of his death.
In 1978 the house was occupied by Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, the Indonesian army chief in East Timor, who arranged a triumphant ceremony for the return of Lobato’s body to Dili.
Lobato’s death was seen by Indonesia at the time as important in breaking the morale of the resistance movement and it boosted the career of Captain Prabowo Subianto, who went on to marry one of Soeharto’s daughters and is now one of Jakarta’s most powerful political figures. Indonesian army propaganda photographs show Colonel Kalbuadi and Captain Subianto standing over Lobato’s body.
Colonel Kalbuadi was involved in the attack on five Australian newsmen, now known as the Balibo Five, by Indonesian forces on October 16, 1975, during an incursion by Indonesia into what was then Portuguese Timor. Colonel Kalbuadi died in 1998.
If the bones in Darwin are confirmed to be those of Lobato, East Timor would give them a grand state funeral after a hero’s return.
Mr Ramos-Horta has described Lobato as ”our greatest hero”. Dili’s international airport is named after him. Lobato’s brother Rogerio is a former interior minister who was controversially convicted of arming a hit squad to eliminate political opponents in 2007.
He was sentenced to 7½ years’ imprisonment but had the sentence reduced and was allowed to leave East Timor to receive medical treatment and is now living in exile.