East Timor: justice in the dock – ISN

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Seeking to leave the past behind, East Timor could be undermining the rule-of-law and fostering a sense of impunity, with negative implications for future development.

By Simon Roughneen in Dili

Gregorio Saldanha at former prison door, now a museum, in Dili (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

On July 13, opening statements for the defence of former Liberian President Charles Taylor were delivered at Special Court for Sierra Leone proceedings in The Hague, with Counsel Courtenay Griffiths QC telling the court that whatever atrocities took place in Sierra Leone, were beyond the control of the indicted ex-warlord. Meanwhile, on the same day in Dili, the trial of 28 people accused of trying to assassinateEast Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta on February 11 2008 opened in equally dramatic fashion, with one of the accused, Angelita Pires, coming to proceedings barefoot in traditional Timorese dress, setting the tone for what is likely to be a confrontational few months in court.

While Taylor, Slobodan Milosevic and others have been met with due process, and Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has been served with an arrest warrant for crimes committed in Darfur, there has been scant justice applied for crimes committed during or after Indonesian occupation, with the notable exception of the assassination attempt on the President, described by current PM Xanana Gusmao as “a coup attempt”.

East Timor will soon mark a decade since it voted to end Indonesian occupation, which according to the 2005 CAVR Report was – “primarily responsible and accountable for the death from hunger and illness of between 84,200 and 180,000 East Timorese civilians”, with thousands more displaced, maimed, raped and traumatised. In 1999, around another 1400 people died as Indonesian-backed pro-integration Timorese militias attempted to scupper the plebiscite.

Since then, the newly-independent country lurched into a near civil war in 2006, with over 100,000 people displaced and over 30 killed. Pires is accused of conspiring with former navy commander Alfredo Reinado, a key player in 2006, in his apparent attempt to assassinate the Nobel Laureate. Reinado died at the scene, while the President had a narrow escape.

In the run-up to the August 30 anniversary of the 1999 vote to end Indonesia rule, there is much speculation about what the Timorese Government intends to do, by way of creating -“a law that simply puts an end to the tragic chapters of the past. Let bygones be bygones.” – as President Jose Ramos-Horta put it in an interview with Foreign Policy last week.

Dealing with the past

Since 1999, there have been calls for an international tribunal for crimes committed up to and including that year– something lawmakers, the Catholic Church and Timorese civil society believe the UN Security Council should establish. Since then other recommendations – such as those from a 2006 UN inquiry, have called for prosecutions for those involved in the internal 2006 violence.

President Ramos-Horta lost a sister and two brothers during the occupation, one of whom was a senior resistance commander. Speaking to Foreign Policy last week, he added – “Let’s forget about an international tribunal — it will never happen.”

Other measures, such as the UN Serious Crimes Investigation Unit, were set up “because the Security Council could not or would not establish a tribunal”, as opposition leader Mari Alkatiri put it to ISN Security Watch. The SCU’s work led to the indictment of Indonesian military officers but Jakarta refused to extradite the accused. Among these included Gen. Wiranto, who this year stood as a Vice-Presidential candidate in the Indonesian Presidential election. Now, a replacement body, the Serious Crimes Investigation Team (SCIT), has a mandate to investigate serious crimes committed in 1999 but leaves their prosecution in the hands of the Timorese prosecutor-general.

Some post-conflict truth and reconciliation measures have been undertaken – chiefly the CAVR Report, and the bilateral Commission on Truth and Friendship. The latter did not advocate any judicial process against those suspected or accused of crimes between 1974-99, or look at Indonesia’s occupation, but did acknowledge that the Indonesian military and police as well as the civilian government and militia groups bore responsibility for crimes against humanity committed in 1999 – a finding accepted by Indonesia’s recently re-elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The CAVR report, better known by the Portuguese ‘Chega!’ (Never Again!), has yet to be debated in parliament, despite being completed in 2005.

Double standards?

According to SBS World News Australia Pires has said, that if convicted, she will say that there is no justice in Timor-Leste for the ordinary East Timorese and that the existing judicial system merely protects the elites.

The relative speed with which East Timor’s ‘2-11’ case is being dealt with, suggests that there may be double standards. East Timor’s ‘”11-11” tragedy has yielded no such progress.

is Co-ordinator of the November 12 Committee, and is currently working to find the remains of the hundreds murdered by Indonesian troops on November 12 1991, at Dili’s Santa Cruz cemetary. The massacre was recorded by foreign journalists, and helped revive international attention on the East Timor cause, which had been more or less shelved throughout the 1980s.

Saldanha was one of the organisers of the demonstration that fateful day, and spent 8 years in prison in Jakarta as a result, some of which ran concurrent to the jail time served by current PM Xanana Gusmao. He tells ISN Security Watch that already, at a commemoration of the 1999 church massacre at Liquica, there was much anger and disappointment among the bereaved at the lack of justice and absence of high-level representation at the event.

In May 2008, just weeks after his near-death at the hands of Reinado’s assassins, the President pardoned over 90 prisoners, including the only convicted perpetrators from 1999. Fernanda Borges leads the opposition National Unity Party and chairs the parliamentary committee responsible for addressing these issues. She told ISN Security Watch that “crimes committed in 1999 are unpardonable”

Borges feels that ordinary people do not think that the law applies equally across the board, and that justice is an abstract concept to them. As well as pardoning the only people convicted of violence in 1999, Ramos-Horta has involved Roque Rodrigues in his security sector reform plans, despite findings implicating him in 2006. Many of the participants of violence in 2006 remain not only at large, but retain senior positions in the security forces, which are currently undergoing review, with the police resuming responsibility from the UN counterpart. Ramos-Horta also pardoned former Minister Rogerio Lobato, who was sentenced to 7 ½ years in jail for arming hit squads during 2006.

Jose Belo is a former resistance fighter who spent time in an Indonesian jail, and is now editor of investigative weekly Tempo Semanal. Currently facing a legal suit, arising out of a corruption story involving the Minister for Justice, Belo told ISN Security Watch that the Lobato case shows that East Timor has a flawed and selective justice system.

Looking back to look forward

The current administration clearly and perhaps understandably wants to move on from the past. Indonesia is backing East Timor’s application to join ASEAN, which would give Dili more leverage in dealing with an often-paternalistic Australia. Ironically, Ramos-Horta’s strident advocacy for democracy and justice in ASEAN member Burma, has so far proved a stumbling block for East Timor’s application, with the Napyidaw junta taking umbrage at the outspoken President’s condemnations.

East Timor faces many challenges, but with ample oil revenues in the bank, and more to come, it has the opportunity to invest in much-needed infrastructure and job creation projects in the short-to-immediate term. However, the country has serious governance and rule-of-law shortcomings, ranking a lowly 145 on the Transparency International corruption index, and with a legal system clogged by 4000 outstanding cases.

How East Timor and the international community deals with past crimes, however, may have implications for the country’s future. Galuh Wandita is Senior Associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice in Jakarta (ICTJ), and told ISN Securty Watch – “This is not just an issue of past victims, it is an issue of future victims. Any step to block or not support prosecution of those responsible for the terrible violations committed in Timor, such as proposals for amnesties, helps to promote and protect the systemic impunity which provides fertile ground for future violations”

Amid “a growing culture of impunity”, as Shona Hawkes from the development monitor NGO La’o Hamutuk put it to ISN Security Watch, the government could compromise the rule-of-law in East Timor.

Part of the government plans involve attracting much needed foreign investment – in construction, tourism, telecommunications – as well as a hoped-for oil processing plant on Timor’s southern coast. Some of the sought-after investment will come from Indonesia, with whom East Timor now has amicable relations, and which has itself become one of southeast Asia’s more assured democracies. East Timor needs cheap Indonesian imports and access its education system, where many Timorese go to study.

MP Fernanda Borges told ISN Security Watch – “Timor-Leste needs rights-based political culture founded on the rule-of-law – it is the only way forward for development and stability. Unless rule of law is implemented, what rights will companies looking to invest here have?”

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