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A 20 year old New Zealand-Malaysian, Kamal, was murdered by Indonesian military intelligence in 1991 at Dili cemetery in East Timor; his mother took the case to a New York court, and now New Zealand filmmaker Annie Goldson has told the story in a feature length documentary, Punitive Damage. Goldson talks to ANDREW L. URBAN.

All the economic cuddling up to Indonesia by New Zealand (and Australia) was proved fruitless when it came to the economic crunch, says Annie Goldson, and the willingness of Western nations to to use trade as an excuse to not address human rights issues has been, at best, "an opportunity we've missed."

"I'm not motivated by political positions"

That's a very moderate way of saying the West, Australia and New Zealand particularly in their neighbourly role, have been cowardly in their dealings with Indonesia over East Timor. But Goldson is not that strident, although she is, in her quietly spoken way, passionate and concerned about the issue of human rights.

In her detailed and gripping documentary, Punitive Damage, Goldson tells the tragic story of the 20 year old New Zealand-Malaysian student, Kamal Bamadhaj, who went to East Timor to assist a human rights investigation. His passion for the cause of independence of East Timor led to him being shot dead by the Indonesian military at the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili - one of the 271 unarmed East Timorese who died there. His (by then divorced from her Malaysian husband) mother, Helen Todd, had an opportunity to seek justice in the US courts for her son's death. She eventually found a way to fight the Indonesian Government and those responsible, in a landmark international court case, awarding punitive damages of US$16 million in her favour. (Not that she expects the perpetrators to pay. . . )

"I always have to say that I'm not motivated by political positions," says Goldson, who also made Seeing Red (the story of the New Zealand 'red scare' scandal of 1949); Framing the Panthers (the story of former Black Panther leader Dhoruba Bin Wahad); and Counterterror: North of Ireland (on the British shoot-to-kill policy in Belfast).

"There's always a multiplicity of motivations.."

"There's always a multiplicity of motivations, but I do have a deep interest in human rights," she says. "In this instance trade was used to intimidate New Zealand into doing nothing. . . "

Punitive Damage, says Goldson, "is a very human story, even though the context is political. In terms of filmmaking it was a way of exploring a regional political issue through a personal story, one with New Zealanders at the centre. Because of this I hoped I would combat the belief that such grievous violations occur elsewhere - and are nothing to do with us."

Goldson, a teacher, filmmaker and mother, says she was "encouraged to take a personal line in the film because of Helen . . . the fact that she could do this, and because she's spent a lot of time in Asian cultures and is not at all patronising. She knows what they are."

When the film was shown at Parliament House in New Zealand, 70 MPs attended, a high turnout; "they probably needed to do their homework, as we have police and people over there (in Timor)," says Goldson. But the film has generated a great deal of positive responses from all over the country and "many people were horrified by not only the events, but the complicity of the West."

"a special trust"

Goldson says Helen Todd has now formed a special trust which will be the beneficiary of some of the revenue from the film's distribution ("if it makes any money") to be distributed to student pro democracy movements in various parts of Asia - in memory of Kamal.

The New York law firm, Centre for Constitutional Rights, established by the late civil rights lawyer William Kinstler, played a key role in getting the case to trial in New York (because an enlightened US law allows for human rights offences to be tried irrespective of geography). And, says Goldson, "if there is enough political change in Indonesia, these lawyers are not the kind to drop the matter and may well pursue the Indonesian General and the Military Intelligence officer directly responsible, in a court over there. . ."

The case of Kamal Bamadhaj is not closed.

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