Australia’s secret interrogation centre

The following by Mark WillacyJosh RobertsonStephanie March and Kyle Taylor, is the result of an investigation for the ABC’s Four Corners program about an ugly episode of Australia’s involvement in East Timer (Timor Leste). The torture of detainees by members of the Australian contingent of the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET), is another episode of human rights abuses in the new emerging nation. Here too there is evidence of cover up by the military brass. This time it is of the existence of a torture centre and what it was doing. There has still been no one taken to account for the wrongdoing. The report reproduced below was published on 11 April 2022.

During the widely celebrated peace-making mission in East Timor, Australian soldiers held 14 men and boys in a secret interrogation facility.

The detainees, suspected of being pro-Indonesian militia, say they were stripped, assaulted, deprived of food, water and sleep and forcibly shown the mangled bodies of two dead militiamen.

 

Their ordeal led to Australian military investigators recommending charges of torture.

These are the menand boys who were interrogated.

The Australian SAS thought they were all “high-value” targets. They were wrong.

Among them were three boys, farmers and a man with a disability.

Four Corners has tracked down 11 of the 14 detainees and for the first time, they are publicly telling their stories.

The Timorese say they were tortured and are still traumatised by what the Australians did to them.

Their treatment shocked many of the soldiers who witnessed it and led to a secret investigation by one of Australia’s closest allies.

‘They were in the wrong place at the wrong time’

In October 1999, pro-Indonesian militia gangs were terrorising and killing Timorese across the newly liberated nation now known as Timor-Leste.

The Australian-led International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) was deployed on a peace-making mission to put a stop to the violence.

In the south-west town of Suai, near the Indonesian border, Australian, NZ and British special forces had set up a roadblock to flush out remaining militia.

When a truck tried to run the roadblock, Australian SAS soldiers opened fire, wounding four Timorese.

Those four, along with another 10 men the special forces soldiers suspected of being militia, were taken to the capital, Dili, for questioning.

In Dili, the men were then wrongly blamed for an ambush near Suai that had left two Australian SAS soldiers wounded.

The 14 were not involved. They had been rounded up hours before the ambush.

‘It wasn’t supposed to exist’

On arrival in Dili, the men were blindfolded and handcuffed as they were led off Black Hawk helicopters by Australian soldiers.

The four wounded were taken to hospital. The other 10 should have been taken to an official detention facility in the heart of East Timor’s capital.

Instead, they were led to a secret, Australian-run interrogation centre at Dili’s heliport, where the Australian SAS soldiers were stationed.

“It was all hush-hush, top-secret sort of stuff,” a military police captain would later tell investigators.

“It wasn’t supposed to exist.”

Taken into a hot, small military tent, the men were terrified.

Some later soiled themselves in fear.

The men had mugshots taken against a grimy height chart.

Over 72 hours, they were subjected to repeated interrogations by Australian intelligence officers who tried to get confessions about militia membership and activities.

Between interrogations, the men were kept blindfolded and were forced to sit cross-legged with their hands tied in a military tent in the sweltering heat.

“These men were all quite small and they were scared. They were scared of us,” said intelligence sergeant Michael Clarey, who was tasked with guarding the detainees for the first few hours at the heliport.

Photo by Louie Eroglu: Michael Clarey

The bodies of two militiamen killed in the Suai ambush were also brought there by INTERFET soldiers and shown to the detainees.

“It’s a bit hard to put that whole combination of the smell of blood, the corpses starting to turn, fear, anger, heat, 30 degrees, 90 per cent humidity, very little ventilation [into words],” said intelligence officer Matthew Coombes, who observed some of the initial tactical questioning of the detainees.

‘They tortured us’

One of the detainees was farmer Valdemar de Neri, who suffered from severe hearing and speech impairments.

Four Corners spoke to him through his neighbour, who interpreted for him.

“They arrested him and some of them didn’t know [about his disability], so they hit him,” his neighbour said.

Australian military police officer Karl Fehlauer, who would later interview Mr de Neri as part of a special inquiry, said: “They went to town on him.”

“Because he couldn’t hear what they were saying, they thought he was highly trained or something. And it took them quite a while to work out that that was an issue, which is rather embarrassing when you look back on it,” Mr Fehlauer said.

When he was eventually released to the official detention centre, a military police officer who collected him from the heliport wrote in his diary about Mr de Neri’s condition:

“Pissed his pants. Obvious that he had been f***ed over by SAS, who had captured/detained him, and by INT [intelligence], who had interrogated him. The man was shit-scared.”

Detainee Julio da Silva was only 16 years old when he was taken to the heliport.

“They tortured us,” he told Four Corners.

“They hit me, punched me here and I fell backwards,” Mr da Silva said.

“Then my back was sore. I had cramps. If I bent forward … they would use a weapon to hit me in the back, kick me in the back, then I fell forward. They sat me up again.”

Mr da Silva said they were deprived of food and were only given sips of water from the lid of a bottle, despite the sweltering heat in the tent.

One of the most disturbing experiences for the detainees was when the Australian soldiers forced them to look at the mangled bodies of dead militia in an effort to identify them.

“I was really scared because I was still young … I cried a lot,” Mr da Silva said.

“I thought I was going to die.”

Mr Clarey said this was done to identify the bodies before the interrogations began.

“The only way we could identify those dead men was to bring the detainees, one at a time in a very controlled environment, and ask them, ‘Do you know this man?’

“Did I see reactions from detainees? Yeah. There was a lot of screaming.”

Another detainee, Celestino de Andrade, told Four Corners he too was terrified when shown the bodies.

“My feeling was maybe I will also die like this … maybe they are showing me this because they want to kill me.”

During the interrogations, the INTERFET soldiers repeatedly asked the detainees if they were members of the militia.

“I didn’t understand the word ‘militia’. I thought they were saying Malaysia,” farmer Florindo Moniz Cardoso said.

“They repeatedly questioned me about that and they kicked me in the back.”

Another detainee, Yakobus Mau, said when he was arrested, he was stripped down to his underwear and left that way for the duration of his detention.

He recalls INTERFET soldiers beating two detainees when they tried to resist being put in the tent.

“They were beaten and pushed under the tarpaulin, like pigs in a pen,” he said.

One detainee was singled out for special treatment. The Australians suspected Bartolomeus Ulu was a member of Kopassus, the Indonesian special forces.

“So they treated me in a way that wasn’t normal, like an animal,” he told Four Corners.

“So when I was hit, I was really properly hit. At that time, I truly was tortured. I was kicked to the point of losing consciousness.”

Even now he insists he was a civilian, but he says he was forced to confess to being Kopassus while being interrogated.

“I had to sit for 24 hours, then stand up for 24 hours, my eyes were covered, my hands were tied — a civilian prisoner.”

He said he was sexually assaulted.

“At that time, I was bare-chested. They told me to take my pants off, my underwear, everything off. Then they groped my genitals. It wasn’t a male INTERFET soldier, it was a female.

“I don’t know what sort of check that was. Then they kept taking my statement. The questions continued.”

“That was abuse.”

The Australians themselves later described the detainees’ fear.

“One of the actual particular prisoners I interrogated, he urinated himself during the session,” an intelligence corps captain later told investigators.

“It’s probably due to the fact that he was 5 foot zero and I’m 6 foot 8 and I was yelling at him.”

A British special forces officer was so alarmed by the way the detainees were being treated, he raised concerns with an Australian Intelligence officer and a member of the SAS.

He refused to participate in the interrogations.

“My refusal was based on … the conduct of the guard force, who did not appear to be well-trained,” he later told investigators.

He also removed his men from the “exploitation process”.

Detainee 134

Some of the most concerning allegations of mistreatment centred on detainee 134, Nadus Bau.

He had been shot by Australian SAS soldiers when the truck he was in tried to run the roadblock in Suai.

Badly injured in the legs and arms, Bau was taken to an army hospital in Dili under military police guard, along with another injured detainee, Carlos Verdial.

An Australian SAS soldier then turned up and dragged them away to the secret interrogation centre, despite protests from Mr Bau’s guards.

“[They made us] jump like a frog,” Mr Bau told Four Corners.

“We had serious injuries and had to do that. We were kicked. My injury got worse.”

A day and a half later, Mr Bau was delivered to the official detention centre, where a military police lance corporal officer was shocked by his condition:

“One wound in the arm showed signs of weeping blood and pus, the bandage was soaked in the blood … this East Timorese person needed hospitalisation and intravenous antibiotics,” the officer later told investigators.

He was not the only Australian repulsed by the condition of Mr Bau’s gunshot wounds.

“You go within sort of 5 feet of him and you’d straight away smell this stench of, like, rotting-flesh-type smell … once [the doctor] removed the bandages … there was maggoty type of animals, you know, insects and shit, crawling around and, again, he was horrified at it,” a military police lieutenant said.

David Freeman, an Australian Defence Force lawyer in the INTERFET legal office, was tasked with training soldiers in the rules of engagement, the use of force, and how to treat people in detention.

He was never consulted about the secret interrogation centre.

“It’s outrageous. You can’t do that,” Mr Freeman said.

“For them to be dragged out of a hospital and then interrogated was — I use the word outrageous and unlawful.”

Andrena’s fight to uncover what happened

One Australian military police officer was so horrified he turned to someone he trusted within INTERFET headquarters.

Captain Andrena Gill was a New Zealand military lawyer attached to INTERFET’s legal office.

One of her jobs was to oversee the treatment of detainees.

“What he told me was [about] stress positions, physical harm, withholding of food and water. Keeping someone naked in stress positions,” she said.

She took the allegations to her boss, the Australian chief legal officer of INTERFET.

In a taped interview with ADF investigators, Ms Gill described how her boss responded.

“[It] doesn’t matter if the militia are being roughed up a bit. ‘Who cares if they are not being given or withdrawn food and water,’ and, ‘What’s the big deal?’”

NO FURTHER ACTION REQUIRED

When INTERFET commander Sir Peter Cosgrove — then a major general — learned of detainee mistreatment allegations, he ordered an on-the-spot investigation.

The head of the interrogation centre reported back: “Detainees were treated humanely and in accordance with the guidance outlined under the Geneva Conventions. The detainees were given water regularly and adequate food … at no stage were the detainees physically mistreated or harmed.”

A legal office memo obtained by Four Corners shows Major General Cosgrove was “advised, no recommendation for further enquiry. This was accepted”.

Sir Peter told Four Corners that the “investigation found that what was reported was not beyond the bounds of propriety”.

Major General Sir Peter Cosgrove

Ms Gill recalls a conversation involving Major General Cosgrove two days after the detainees were brought in from Suai and taken for interrogation at the heliport.

“What he said was that he didn’t accept that detainees would be physically beaten,” she said.

“And he didn’t accept that they should be stripped naked. But he felt that handcuffs and blindfolds were OK. And he also said he was unconcerned about the food and water situation.”

 

Three and a half days after the detainees were captured, the decision was made to shut down the interrogation centre at the heliport and send the detainees to the official detention centre.

The military police in charge of the official centre would not let the mistreatment allegations slide, and several of them fronted the deputy head of the INTERFET legal office.

A military police major recalled what the legal officer said:

“You’ve been told to get on with the f***en job … I’m sick and tired of you continually bringing this shit up. Shut your f***ing mouth.”

Ms Gill decided to raise the mistreatment allegations through her New Zealand chain of command. She was told to do an investigation and to keep it secret from the Australians.

Her information sent shock waves to the very top of the New Zealand military.

In secret New Zealand defence memos obtained by Four Corners, the Kiwi top brassexpressed concern the alleged mistreatment may have constituted “a grave breach of international law”. They also pondered drastic measures.

“This may, ultimately, require that we do not hand detainees that we have captured to INTERFET for interrogation,” Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Riordan at the New Zealand Defence Force Directorate of Legal Services noted.

The chief of the New Zealand Defence Force dispatched an envoy to meet Major General Cosgrove to reinforce the Kiwi “unease” about the allegations.

According to the envoy, Major General Cosgrove stressed that he had clearly directed that detainees were not to be ill-treated.

‘I was assured that we had top cover from General Cosgrove’

The commander in charge of the interrogation centre later told military police investigators that he regularly briefed Major General Cosgrove.

“I did report to him almost on an hourly basis … I physically went to his office to brief him as to what was happening.”

And two other intelligence officers stated to investigators they were told the centre had been authorised at the highest level.

“I was assured that we had top cover from General Cosgrove for [conducting interrogation].”

Sir Peter told Four Corners that he recalled the United Nations authorised INTERFET to detain and interrogate people as part of its mission.

Sir Peter also said that the interrogation should not have been prolonged and that “no physical violence other than ordinary restraint be used — hitting was not permitted. Food and water must be provided, hygiene and health needs provided for.”

He said he would have been briefed routinely but not in a way that was “singular and focused”.

In response to the sexual abuse allegations by Bartolomeus Ulu, Sir Peter told Four Corners: “I was not aware of this. I find this grotesque and criminally actionable. Four Corners should provide all necessary assistance to the ADF to identify the perpetrator.”

Torture charges recommended

Nearly a year after Andrena Gill’s secret investigation, the Royal Australian Corps of Military Police (RACMP) launched a special inquiry into 19 allegations of wrongdoing in East Timor — including the mistreatment of detainees.

Investigator Karl Fehlauer was part of the team that interviewed 330 witnesses, including Australian soldiers tasked with guarding the detainees.

Photo by Dave Maguire: Karl Fehlauer

The military police investigators found the interrogations breached the intent of the mission and the policies set down by the United Nations and the Australian government.

The investigators gathered 70 statements and enough evidence to write up briefs for charges of torture against three shift commanders from the intelligence corps.

The briefs of evidence found that over three and a half days at the interrogation centre, in a bid to extract confessions, the detainees were subjected to:

Sleep deprivation

Food deprivation

Restriction of basic hygiene facilities

Other forms of mental abuse

Four Corners has obtained an email from the director of army personnel that says the three commanders were to be charged within a month.

But no-one was ever charged. Defence declined to tell Four Corners why.

Four Corners has been told that the legal advice said the evidence did support charges being laid. However, it said prosecuting the interrogation centre commanders was not fair because they were following their training.

In the end, the interrogations at the heliport gleaned very little, with the commanding officer of the SAS who helped round them up later admitting the detainees were of minimal value and were “local farmers with a low security interest”.

“The problem is, as far as we could make out, they had no inkling of being the militia or anything,” Mr Fehlauer told Four Corners.

“At the most, they were just a bunch of guys in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

For her efforts, Ms Gill was ostracised within the legal office.

“I think a dog would have been treated better than the way I was treated by the senior legal officers,” she said.

She eventually received an acknowledgement from the ADF that the way she was treated was unacceptable, dismissive and rude, and that her boss had called her “girlie” and “stupid” or “stupid woman”.

“Sometimes I think I do wish I did nothing. I wish I had turned my back. But that wasn’t really an option. My role was to provide an effective legal check and balance. And that’s what I did,” Ms Gill said.

As for the detainees, they have received no recognition from the ADF.

Most of the men have never had the chance to tell their stories and are forced to live with the lasting physical and mental suffering they say was inflicted by Australian soldiers.

“The army that arrested us should be held responsible,” detainee Julio da Silva said.

“There should be compensation.”

Nadus Bau says he is still traumatised.

“I can’t walk and because of that, I’m angry. I can’t do anything. I can’t walk, I can’t sit properly, sometimes I fall … I’m angry with INTERFET.”

“INTERFET broke the rules. They violated human rights.”

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