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27 Feb 2008 : Column 316WH—continued

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): I apologise to the House for my lack of voice; I hope my
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voice will last throughout my speech. Indeed, Mr. Bercow, you had to listen to it during a previous debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on securing the debate. It is on a matter on which he has a long-standing and, as we heard, a passionate interest.

I express my condolences to the family of Brian Peters, as well as to the families of the four other journalists killed—Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Gary Cunningham. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office followed closely the Australian inquest into the death of Brian Peters, which was concluded on 16 November 2007. Staff from the British consulate-general in Sydney regularly attended hearing days at the Sydney coroner’s court, and were present when the findings were handed down. Throughout, they remained in close touch with the family of Brian Peters.

The circumstances surrounding the tragic deaths of the five journalists have been the subject of some controversy for many years. The Indonesian Government maintained that the men were killed in crossfire between rival Timorese groups. However, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, there were persistent allegations that the journalists were deliberately killed by Indonesian troops to prevent them from reporting the extent of clandestine Indonesian involvement in what was then ostensibly a civil war.

Public interest in the Balibo case was reawakened in 1994 when John Pilger’s TV documentary “Death of a Nation” was first aired. The documentary was mainly about the 1992 Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor, but it referred to the Balibo five, reporting claims that the journalists had been tortured and killed by Indonesian soldiers.

Papers released by the FCO to the National Archives show that on 17 October 1975 our embassy in Jakarta reported unconfirmed news stories that Balibo had been captured by anti-Fretilin forces. The papers also showed that on 24 October 1975 the embassy reported news received from Australia that journalists had been killed.

The telegram issued by our embassy in Jakarta in 1975 recorded what we then knew of the journalists’ deaths, which included the fact that they had been with Fretilin forces when the house in which they were sheltering was hit and set on fire, that press pictures of the house had been published and that it was understood that they had been

It was believed then and during the following years that the journalists had been killed in crossfire between opposing groups fighting in East Timor.

The FCO documents from that time, now released to the National Archives, show that the FCO was aware of the fact that there were clandestine operations in East Timor in October 1975, but not of the details of those operations. Our records show that we were not aware of the journalists’ presence in Balibo before their deaths.

We have not withheld any information that would shed further light on how the five journalists died. All the documents that can be released into the public domain by the FCO on the issue have now been released. The FCO has always striven to be as open and transparent as possible about the information that we hold on the
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incident. That is why, in 2002, documents relating to the incident were released exceptionally early to permit the relatives of Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters to see at first hand what the FCO knew about the deaths.

The FCO files from the period indicate that the Government’s policy was not to intervene directly in the controversy surrounding the future of East Timor but to engage the Indonesian Government on the need for democratic outcomes. The United Kingdom never recognised the Indonesian annexation of the country. We constantly worked through the United Nations to seek a resolution that would fully protect the interests of the people of East Timor.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the developments after the coroner’s findings in New South Wales. It is worth clarifying the matter. There have been no inquests into the deaths in the United Kingdom as there is no legal authority for coroners in the UK to look into a death if there are no remains in their jurisdiction. Under New South Wales legislation, however, coroners can conduct an inquest into the death of someone who was resident in the territory, as Mr. Peters was, even in the absence of remains.

The findings of the New South Wales coroner—that the five were killed deliberately by Indonesian troops—were the outcome of an independent judicial process run by the state coroner’s court. The coroner stated that she would refer the matter to the Australian Attorney-General, as the hon. Gentleman said. The Attorney-General has the authority to launch prosecutions, and he will decide how to take matters forward.

The Government have had contact with the families of the two deceased British journalists on a number of occasions since the men’s deaths.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; it will give her a slight break. She rightly referred, as I did, to the fact that the Attorney-General would look into the issue and that the Director of Public Prosecutions would decide how to proceed. Will it be the Minister’s intention to urge the DPP to bring prosecutions?

Meg Munn: It is not for the United Kingdom Government to take forward the findings of the coroner’s proceedings in Australia or to comment on their accuracy. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have paid close attention to the progress of the inquest, and I plan to ask the Australian authorities at a suitable opportunity how they plan to respond to the inquest’s recommendations.

The Government have had contact with the families of the two deceased British journalists on a number of occasions, including meetings with FCO Ministers. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Minister for Pensions Reform, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O’Brien), then Minister of State for Trade, Investment and Foreign Affairs, met the relatives of Mr. Rennie and Mr. Peters in September 2003 and March 2004 to hear their concerns. Our consular officials wrote to the families of Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie to inform them about developments following the conclusion of the New South Wales coroner’s inquest, and they will continue to liaise with them on any future developments. I believe that that shows how
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seriously the Government are taking the case. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to do so.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of specific questions with me, and to demonstrate our commitment and to look at the issue further, I offer to meet him and,
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if they wish, the families of the two British journalists killed, to discuss the outcome of the Australian inquest. Once again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Five o’clock.

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