By Matt Crook DILI, Mar 27 (IPS) - East Timor's new prosecutor general, Ana Pessoa, says that she is ready to 'strengthen' her office through 'first of all trying to understand why there are so many pending cases'.
Pessoa is the former justice minister and cabinet member for the interior. 'The figures [for pending cases] vary depending on the report. Some speak of about 4,000, some 2,000 and others 3,000. I really don’t understand why because when I was in the Ministry of Justice there were very few cases, not more than 300 a year,' she said.
President José Ramos-Horta reiterated this in a speech to parliament last week, saying, 'We lack a reliable system to determine the exact number of such cases. With such a huge backlog of cases, justice is not being served. We urgently require mechanisms to address the backlog.'
Pessoa was sworn in at a ceremony in Dili on Mar. 27 having handed in her resignation as a member of the opposition Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) party last week.
East Timor, which was illegally occupied by Indonesia from 1974 until 1999, became independent in 2002. Pessoa worked in Mozambique’s justice sector for the 24 years of the occupation before returning to East Timor. 'This is just like returning home because all my professional background was in the justice sector,' she added.
During the government of Mari Alkatiri’s FRETILIN party from 2002 to 2007, Pessoa was the minister of state and internal administration. FRETILIN stayed in power until Alkatiri was forced to resign in June 2006 after several weeks of civil unrest. East Timor is now led by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão’s Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) coalition government.
The number of pending cases is just one of several challenges facing Pessoa now. Judicial System Monitoring Programme (JSMP) in Jan. released a summary of East Timor’s justice sector in 2008.
The report read that 'based on monitoring conducted by JSMP, the administrative system is disorganized and no database has been set up to clearly record all registered and pending cases'.
A report published by the United States Department of State released last month said that "the shortage of qualified prosecutors and technical staff in the office of the prosecutor general hampered its work and resulted in a large case backlog.
'At [the end of 2008] there was a nationwide backlog of approximately 5,400 cases. The length of time for cases to come to trial varied significantly, with some delayed for years and others tried within months of accusations.'
Pessoa will work at the new Office for the Prosecutor General building, which was inaugurated on Mar. 5 at a ceremony that included the swearing in of four new public prosecutors. Also there was outgoing Prosecutor General Longuinhos Monteiro, who was sworn in as commander of East Timor’s national police force on Mar. 27.
The former justice minister was nominated for her new job by President Ramos-Horta after consultation with Prime Minister Gusmão. Ramos-Horta and Pessoa were once married and have a son together, Loro.
Some analysts are wondering how Pessoa's appointment will affect politics in East Timor. An article published by the East Timor Law and Justice Bulletin read that the appointment "removes one of FRETILIN’s most prominent, hard-line and powerful members from the political sphere.
'It effectively neutralizes her as a political figure in East Timor and weakens the FRETILIN leadership and its chances of regaining government at the next general election due in 2012.'
Luis de Oliveira Sampaio from the JSMP is worried about what will happen to the justice sector because of Pessoa's background as a member of the parliament from the opposition party.
'The prosecutor is the main institution for defending our system,'Sampaio said. 'The prosecutor and her institution will represent our public interests. If they chose a member of parliament to become the prosecutor general it will be a little harder for us to create our need for justice.'
Pessoa is confident that politics won’t come into it. 'If you know what is your role and mainly what is the role that is expected from the justice sector and the importance of keeping a credible, impartial, professional justice sector, there is no need to worry.'
Pessoa added: 'Up until now there has also been a lot of politicisation of the role of prosecutor. I hope that we can put an end to that so that every institution can understand what is the role of the public prosecutor and what is the role of general prosecutor.'
Warren L Wright, publisher of the East Timor Law Journal, told IPS, 'As prosecutor general, she will have to at least give the appearance of neutrality and professionalism in her new position. I think she was a good pick from the professional perspective - there are not many experienced jurists in East Timor.'
FRETILIN’s members of parliament must now face up to life after Pessoa. 'There are members of my bench who have sufficient experience and they will be OK by themselves. It was with that in mind that I decided to say yes to the invitation,' she said.
'After some discussion and listening to some friends of mine I came to the conclusion that probably now it’s more important to reinforce the justice sector [than parliament],' Pessoa added.