27 June 2008

New gun laws in East Timor defeated in Parliament

The government of East Timor has proposed a new law to regulate guns. But according to the opposition party, FRETILIN, the draft law would give the Commander of the East Timor National Police the sole and discretionary power to authorize civilians to obtain and possess firearms.

The history of firearms in the hands of civilians has contributed to all the bloody episodes in the country's tortured history and the new law comes in the wake of the 2006 illegal weapons distribution case when the then Fretilin government Interior Minister, Rogerio Lobato, was involved in the distribution of weapons to civilians. This illegal weapons distribution contributed to a catastrophic breakdown in law and order in East Timor and Mr Lobato was subsequently sentenced to more than 7 years imprisonment for his role in the weapons distribution and manslaughter.

The new law was vigorously opposed in the National Parliament with the opposition particularly concerned that there was no oversight or appeal mechanisms over the sole and discretionary power of the Police Commander to authorize and decline licences. The East Timor National Police was identified as a highly politicized and weak state institution by the 2006 UN International Commission of Inquiry into the violent crisis that engulged the country in 2006.

According to the Fretilin opposition, the lack of oversight and appeal mechanisms exposed the danger that the legal discretion conferred on the Police Commander could be used politically and improperly by allowing civilians with one political inclination access to firearms and deny others access because of their political affiliations. This key provision of the draft weapons law was defeated in the National Parliament on 25 June 2008 in a heated debate and the provision was deleted from the draft. This was the operative section, and without a substituting clause, the law has no mechanism to authorize the issuing of firearms licenses.

FRETILIN's parliamentary leader, Aniceto Guterres said after the debate that "Those who need to carry weapons in the course of their duties, such as the Defense Forces and Police are able to do so. They have their own laws that permit it. The public do not want to widen that category to include persons for whom it is not essential they have firearms to perform their duty effectively and lawfully.

We reject totally the argument by some AMP [Government] MPs that many others are potentially in danger whilst performing their duty and should therefore be able to carry firearms. If we apply this category, then Timor-Leste will potentially be like the 'Wild West', where everyone will be toting guns. We don't want that kind of society and its clear neither do our people. Like our people, we reject this 'armed to the teeth' approach to living," added Guterres.

"We need consensus on laws such as these. We in FRETILIN will always be open to dialogue towards enacting a sound, workable anti-gun law that embodies our people's aspirations and that has been attained by consensus. We need a strong law that says, 'Less Guns in Our Midst! Let's End the Culture of Violence!' That's what we all want," Guterres said in closing.

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