04 March 2010

East Timor convicts 24 rebels over murder plots

By GUIDO GOULART (AP) – DILI, East Timor ­ A court in East Timor convicted and sentenced 24 rebels Wednesday to up to 16 years in prison over the attempted assassinations of the fledgling democracy's president and prime minister.

Another four defendants were acquitted following a seven-month trial on charges of conspiracy and attempted murder that ended last month.

President Jose Ramos-Horta nearly died of gunshot wounds received in an attack in his Dili compound on Feb. 11, 2008, and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao narrowly escaped unharmed from an ambush of his motorcade later that day.

The defendants were mostly former soldiers and police who became rebels and fugitives after factional rivalries within East Timor's security forces erupted into violence in 2006, killing dozens and toppling the then government.

Angelita Pires, the only female defendant, was among those acquitted. The Australian-East Timorese citizen was the lover of rebel leader Maj. Alfredo Reinado, who was fatally shot by the president's guards during the first attack.

Pires said she was relieved to be exonerated.

"My life has been on hold for over two years and it has been an enormously stressful and emotional time for me and for my loved ones," she told reporters.

Lt. Gastao Salsinha, who replaced Reinado as leader and commanded the failed attack on Gusmao, was sentenced to 10 years and eight months in prison.

The gunman who shot Ramos-Horta, Marcelo Caetano, was sentenced to 16 years. The shortest sentence was nine years and four months.

Damien Kingsbury, professor of international studies at Deakin University in Australia, said the trial was the greatest test of East Timor's judiciary since the nation split from Indonesia in 1999 and achieved formal independence in 2002.

"The judiciary is under a great deal of scrutiny at the moment and this is easily the single most important case to have ever gone before it," Kingsbury said.

East Timor is a former Portuguese colony that was brutally occupied by Indonesia for 24 years until it broke away through a United Nations brokered independence ballot in 1999. Pro-Jakarta militia responded to the vote with a bloody rampage and razed most of the half-island nation's buildings and infrastructure.

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