The death on Wednesday of Crikey contributor HT Lee robs us of a spirited and independent voice – but his loss will be felt even more keenly in Australia's Timorese community, for whom he was a friend and unyielding defender. HT, who was 56, survived the notorious 1999 TNI siege of the UN compound in Dili, but succumbed in Melbourne's Austin hospital after complications from a heart bypass operation that was to have given him new life.

A humble and generous man, HT fought energetically (despite poor health) for the causes he believed in: as a photojournalist; when he worked for the union movement; and as an activist (from helping the people of Timor and Aceh, to proper handling of asbestos). He believed in the free and open exchange of information, and invariably sided against vested interests and injustice. Most recently, he alerted Crikey subscribers to the continuing attempts by the federal government to screw down a tough – and in his firm view unconscionable – deal to exploit East Timor's potentialy vast resource riches.

But HT was no humourless ideologue. His reporting on domestic politics was quirky and irreverent in the best Crikey tradition, lampooning the likes of Bomber Beazley and Labor's headless Roosters, and his bete noir "Lord" Alexander Downer. I met HT while covering last January's clamorous Labor Party national conference in Sydney, new leader Mark Latham's first big set piece. While other hacks were busy networking and socialising, HT offered to fill in my patchy understanding of NSW ALP politics. A long-time member of Labor's notorious Enmore branch, he had plenty of stories to tell. We both watched with fascination the turbulent rise and fall of Latham over the next 12 months.

Fellow activist Dr Vacy Vlazna remembers meeting HT early 1999 at a pro-Timor meeting, where she urged him to go to East Timor: "Without hesitation, unlike many with good intentions and no guts, he bowled into Timor at the most dangerous time – the referendum – where he was seen around Dili with his camera slung around his neck and his heart and commitment on his sleeve."

As the TNI-backed militia's activities grew more ferocious, most reporters covering events in Dili were evacuated. HT was one of the handful of journalists, along with his friend, SBS reporter John Martinkus, who remained in the besieged UN compound. He filed there for a range of organisations, from ABC radio to Workers Online, and had photos published on the front page of the SMH and Age. Their decision to risk their lives and remain with the Timorese almost certainly saved refugees inside the compound from marauding militia and TNI troops.

Finally forced back to Australia, he called for a UN-sanctioned international peacekeeping force to restore order – a process that was finally set in train, but not before Dili was virtually razed.

Read Hugo's full tribute on the site here.