02 July 2009

Business leaders defend East Timor PM over rice contract

ABC Radio News 01 Jul 2009 09:33:40 GMT-0400 Steve Holland and Stephanie March - Business leaders in East Timor have defended Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's approval of a multi-million dollar government contract granted to a company linked to the Prime Minister's daughter.

In a press conference, the East Timorese businessmen also rejected claims of corruption and nepotism concerning the contract awarded to Prima Food, of which Zenilda Gusmao was a shareholder.

They stated that Ms Gusmao sold her shares in the company before it was awarded the contract, but when asked to produce evidence to support their claims, the press conference came to an abrupt end.

Support for PM

Mr Gusmao is still yet to respond to revelations that he approved a multi-million dollar rice contract to a company linked to his daughter and three other contracts to companies part-owned by the wife of another Minister.

President Jose Ramos-Horta this week said he supports Mr Gusmao and believes he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

East Timorese businessmen, including Ricardo Nheu, are the latest to defend Mr Gusmao.

"We condemn those who disseminated and continue to disseminate misinformation to the media. We reject the international media's reporting of misinformation," Mr Nheu said.

Prima Food last year won a government contract to supply rice worth $US3.5 million.

Revelations Reported

Radio Australia last week reported that Ms Gusmao, the prime minister's daughter, is listed as a Prima Food shareholder in East Timor's 2008 business registry.

Kathleen Goncalves, the wife of Minister of Economic Development Joao Goncalves, has also profited from government tenders signed-off by Prime Minister Gusmao.

But another East Timor businessman, Hercio Campos, says the international media should not report on East Timor's internal matters.

"We don't need any foreigners to come here to point out any wrongdoing. We are the ones who will resolve out internal matters," he said. "All Timorese people still have confidence in our main leaders, Xanana Gusmao, Ramos Horta, Mario Carrascalao, and others who are able to stop corruption and nepotism in the near future."

Investigation Sought

Deputy Prime Minister Mario Carrascalao says he is looking into the circumstances surrounding Prima Food's multi-million dollar government tender.

The leader of the National Unity Party and Chairwoman of East Timor's Constitutional Committee, Fernanda Borges, wants the new anti-corruption commission's first task to be an investigation of the Prime Minister's approval of the multi-million dollar government contract awarded to Prima Food.

And it's been reported by local media that Dr Ramos-Horta has ordered an investigation by the country's ombudsman into East Timor's Ministry of Tourism, Commerce and Industry.

But the Office of the President was unable to verify that report or confirm if it involves the Prima Food contract.

Ms Gusmao has refused to discuss her involvement in Prima Food with Radio Australia.

Abrupt End

But Prima Food shareholder Julio Alvaro now says he bought her shares before the contract was signed.

"When the company was set up she was part of it. But after she got information from the government which said that according to the procedures, the daughter of the Prime Minister should not get any contracts, she submitted a letter of resignation to her colleagues in the same company in order for her to resign as the owner of the company," Mr Alvaro said.

But, when asked for evidence to support the claims, Julio Alvaro and the other businessmen, abruptly terminated the press conference.

Prima Food was one of 16 companies awarded rice contracts last year as part of a government plan to ensure food security for the nation. The value of the 16 contracts awarded totalled $US56 million.

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