A Dutch court ordered the government Wednesday to compensate the widows of seven villagers who were summarily executed and a man shot and wounded in a notorious 1947 massacre during Indonesia's bloody battle for independence from colonial rule.
The landmark ruling was the first time the Dutch government has been held responsible by a court for the massacre.
The Hague Civil Court ruled it was "unreasonable" for the government to argue that the widows were not entitled to compensation because the statute of limitations had expired.
"Justice has been done," said plaintiffs' lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld. "This means that the state can't just sit in silence for 60 years waiting for the case to go away or the plaintiffs to die and then appeal to the statute of limitations."
Estimates of the death toll in the village of Rawagedeh in western Java vary from 150 to more than 430.
Despite a 1948 United Nations report condemning the attack as "deliberate and ruthless," the Dutch government never prosecuted any soldiers for their roles in the killings. A 1968 Dutch report acknowledged "violent excesses" in Indonesia but argued that Dutch troops were carrying out a "police action" often incited by guerrilla warfare and terror attacks.
After a television documentary explored the bloodbath, the government conceded in 1995 that summary executions had taken place in Rawagedeh, now known as Balongsari, but said prosecutions were no longer possible.
It was not until 2005 that the government formally faced up to the past when former Foreign Minister Ben Bot expressed deep regret for offenses by Dutch forces throughout Indonesia in 1947.
The judgment paves the way for a case to establish the level of indemnities to be paid to the relatives.
However, Zegveld said its narrow focus on widows of massacre victims means it is unclear whether it will expose the Dutch state to a flood of compensation claims from other relatives of people killed during the Dutch fight to retain control over the Dutch East Indies, which became Indonesia in 1949.
The widows deserved compensation because they were in the village at the time of their husbands' deaths and so suffered directly, Zegveld said.
In its written judgment, the court said the Netherlands "acted illegally" against the plaintiffs, "through the execution of their then-husbands" and said the state was liable to compensate them for "past and future suffering."
In an initial reaction, government lawyer Bert-Jan Houtzagers said he was surprised by the ruling and would carefully study the 17-page judgment before deciding whether to appeal.
The ruling came too late for two of the plaintiffs _ one widow died earlier this year as did a man also covered by the ruling who also was granted compensation because he was shot and wounded during the mass executions.
The court's written ruling said that the statute of limitations normally expires after just five years, but it made an exception because of the seriousness of the offenses.
Indonesia declared its independence from Dutch colonial rule when World War II ended in 1945. The Netherlands fought unsuccessfully to try to maintain control of its lucrative Asian outpost and Indonesia was finally recognized as independent in 1949.