26 September 2008

East Timor mulls traditional justice for serious crimes

ABC Radio Australia 26/09/2008 - For many in East Timor, access to the justice system is almost impossible. Institutions are weak and the remoteness of many villages means it can take days to reach the nearest police station. Now, one government official is travelling around East Timor promoting the use of traditional justice for all crimes, including rape.

Presenter: Stephanie March Speakers: East Timor MP Fernanda Borges; Albilio de Jesus, Remexio sub-district police commander; Tulatakeu village chief Florindo Mesquita Lorego; State Secretary for the Environment Albilio De Jesus Lima; Chief of the United Nations Administration of Justice Support Unit in East Timor, Mitch Dufrense

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MARCH: Tulatakeu village, is 14km from the nearest police station. It takes an hour and a half to walk there, and the road's in poor condition, and is cut off for several months of the year during the wet season. Albilio de Jesus is the Remexio sub-district police commander. He has 11 staff, and one motorbike, to police a population of 10,000.

DEJESUS: According to us, that's not enough. But while United Nations police are here we coordinate with them when we go on patrol. We got to maybe one town or two towns a day. Then we will go to more towns the next day.

MARCH: For many people in East Timor, access to formal justice is almost impossible. Institutions are weak, and it can take hours to reach the nearest police station and days to the nearest courthouse. For centuries, communities have relied on local mechanisms to resolve problems. Community leaders, from Tulatakeu including village chief Florindo Mesquita Lorego recently signed a document formalizing a committee to dish out traditional justice.

LOREGO: It applies to people who are thieves, horse thieves, cattle rustlers, rapists. People who go into someone's garden without permission from the owner, that's also a crime.

MARCH: I asked him what the penalty would be for someone found guilty of rape.

LOREGO: That will depend on what the council demands, they could demand two cows, maybe three, and they have to restore the reputation of the woman's community to other communities.

MARCH: And one East Timorese government official is traveling around the countryside, promoting the type of traditional justice adopted in Tulatakeu. State Secretary for the Environment Albilio De Jesus Lima recently visited the village to congratulate them for adopting traditional justice to include crimes like theft and rape.

East Timor is governed by the Indonesian penal code, and other laws developed during the period of United Nations administration following independence. Mr Lima says people don't trust those laws, so while the government works to establish an organic law, it's best to rely on traditional mechanisms.

LIMA: I think the environment portfolio includes sexuality, you talk about environment, you talk about human environment, about social environment, I focus on a total comprehensive environment. I am a public servant, aren't I?

MARCH: The inclusion of rape in the informal justice system is alarming for human rights advocates. Traditional law known as terra (tara ed.) bandu is mainly used to resolve community disputes about land and resource management, not crimes against the person. Traditionally in East Timor, often the crime of rape is not considered a crime against the person, but against her family. The belief is that if a woman becomes a victim of sexual assault, the community will believe her family can't take care of her.

Chief of the United Nations Administration of Justice Support Unit in East Timor, Mitch Dufrense says the biggest concern with traditional justice is whether or not the process and outcomes meet basic human rights standards.

DUFRENSE: The Minister of Justice has already stated that gender-based violence linked crimes are to be dealt with in the formal justice system. Those cases have traditionally been very challenging in the traditional mechanisms and have been examples of types of cases that fall below international standards.

MARCH: MP Fernanda Borges says traditional justice in East Timor is not set up to support victims of gender based violence.

BORGES: Usually it is the men that are the nucleus of power in the local community, and women are underneath that system. It works for other things, but I think definitely for domestic violence it is not an appropriate form to engage.

MARCH: State Secretary for the Environment Albilio de Jesus Lima says he has visited six districts that are using traditional law, which means up to one third of East Timor's population could be using this form of justice.

But MP Fernanda Borges says what he is promoting goes against many of the international human rights conventions signed by East Timor

BORGES: If the secretary of state is doing that he is very wrong, because he is operating completely outside of the constitution and the judical processes that are established in the country.

Post sponsored by East Timor Women - Raising awareness of the plight of women in Timor-Leste.

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