09 March 2010

The Rule of Law in East Timor: Death by a Thousand Cuts

 ETLJB 09/03/2010 SYDNEY – Following a long and arduous trial, the Court has pronounced its judgement  in the trial of rebel soldiers who deserted the East Timor Defence Force (Falintil-FDTL) and, so it has been found, subsequently attempted the overthrow of the country’s highest political leaders on 11 February 2008 through a conspiracy to murder them.

The rebel soldiers had been led by one F-FDTL Major Alfredo Reinado who was shot to death at close range in the grounds of the Presidential residence compound during the chaos of that day. After his death, his deputy, Gastao Salsinha, took over until they were convinced to surrender in April 2008.

The rebels were convicted by the Dili District Court of serious crimes including subversion against the Timorese state as well as attempted murder and conspiracy to murder. Reinado’s partner at the time of the apparent attacks on Timor’s President and Prime Minister, Australian Angelita Pires, was acquitted of all charges.

Doubts remain about exactly what happened and who planned the events on that day but the Court has made it decision and has found numerous and grave violations of the law by the former soldiers. The seriousness of the charges is reflected in the heavy prison terms imposed on the convicted.

Notwithstanding all of that, on 4 March 2010, the leading daily newspaper Suara Timor Lorosa’e ran a story entitled “President Horta promises to pardon Salsinha”.  STL reported that President Jose Ramos Horta promised on Thursday (4/3) that he would pardon rebel leader Gastao Salsinha who was charged with attempted assassination against the Prime Miniter Xanana Gusmao.

Salsinha was sentenced 10 years and 8 months imprisonment by the Dili District Court last Wednesday (3/3).

“The trial process for the attempted assassination case ended and I will pardon Salsinha and his followers,” President Horta said.  President Horta added that he respects the decision of the court but he will use his constitutional power to pardon Salsinha and his men.

It appears that, despite the Court’s decision, Ramos Horta intends to exercise his reserve executive powers and pardon those criminals. Such pardons would have a serious deleterious impact on the justice system generally and, more specifically, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.

The rule of law in East Timor has always been fragile and has disintegrated several times since independence causing great miseries for the people. The rule of law is the very foundation of the civil peace and, ultimately, the democratic organisation of society and so threats to the rule of law are of great concern to those interested in securing a stable and peaceful community in East Timor.

Unfortunately, East Timor’s political leaders have not always demonstrated a clear comprehension of the rule of law and have on several occasions failed to promote the dictatorship of the Constitution  and essential democratic legal principles such as the separation of powers or the independence of the judicial arm of the state. 

The pardoning of criminals convicted of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity, the unconstitutional joint mobilisation of the security forces, the illegal release of detained and indicted crimes against humanity suspects as well as continuing human rights abuses by the police all evidence systematic failures in the justice system for which responsibility lies entirely in the hands of the President, the Prime Minister and Government and the Parliament.

Further attacks on the rule of law by the Executive will only have a destabilising effect, promote disrespect for the Courts and Judges, and, in this instance, let loose on the community a gang of convicted criminals who held the nation to ransom for two years (2006 – 2008).

Is it any wonder then that the presence of foreign military and police continues to be a requirement to maintain law and order?

As long as the rule of law is not the paramount objective of the political system and leaders, this will continue to compromise the nation’s sovereignty and dignity in the international community that has provided so much support to the establishment of a liberal capitalist democracy in East Timor.

There can be no democracy or peace without the rule of just law, the separation of state powers, constitutional legislation and the independence of the judiciary. Immediately nullifying the decisions of the Courts that have worked hard to implement and administer the criminal law constitutes an erosion of not only the rule of law but also of the legitimacy of the courts.

What could justify the pardoning and release of serious criminals who have wielded violence and the threat of violence against the whole country? Nothing.

The present conditions in East Timor seem to add much force to the proposition made after the disintegration of the rule of law in 2006 that the independence struggle leaders should retreat from the political scene and surrender the reigns of power to the generation that was most impacted by the horrifying Indonesian occupation. Instead, they remain trapped in the ideological quagmire and frictions of the self-determination struggle - which ended more than a decade ago. They remain incapable of rendering justice or reconciling the deep social, political and economic divisions in East Timor that are, in the end, the cause of the continuing conflict.

See also East Timor Parole and Pre-Trial Detention JSMP Justice Update 2008

Timor Leste Joint Command police corruption report 2008

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