18 July 2009

East Timor Conspiracy Theories: Is Angelita Pires Guilty Of Assassination Plot?

By Adam Gartrell, South-East Asia Correspondent DILI, East Timor, July 17 AAP - Angelita Pires talks a lot about conspiracies.

There's the conspiracy she's accused of but denies authoring: The one to assassinate East Timor's top two political leaders.

And there's the conspiracy she insists she's the victim of: The one that seeks to put her behind bars for the February 2008 attacks on President Jose Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

"I am innocent, there's no proof against me," the Timor-born Australian told AAP after her trial kicked off in Dili this week.

"And any proof there is, is forged.

"If the court decides that I should go to jail at the end of all this, it will be because they want to make a decision that pleases the politically powerful.

"Well then, at least I'll know why I'm there: I'm a political scapegoat."

Is this the ranting of a guilty woman who'll say anything to escape blame for the attacks, in which Ramos Horta was almost killed? Or is there some substance to her claims?

It's hard to be sure.

The question then becomes: Is East Timor's fledgling legal system capable of getting to the truth and reaching the right verdict?

Again, it's hard to be sure.

Pires is one of 28 people facing trial in the Dili District Court over the assassination attempts. Most of the others were followers of Pires' lover, rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, who was killed in the assault on Ramos Horta's compound.

Prosecutors allege Pires was an "indirect author" of the attacks. Portraying her as a femme fatale, they allege she was the one who convinced Reinado to carry out the attacks; that she helped fund and resource Reinado's rebels; and that she provided them with drugs that made them "feel brave".

Pires' Australian lawyer, Darwin barrister Jon Tippett QC, says the case is "hopelessly inadequate".

"It's our view that the evidence is so lacking in integrity and cogency that the case simply cannot succeed," he says.

"We would expect any reasonable prosecutor, aware of the nature of the case against Ms Pires, to act in accordance with both justice and law, and withdraw it."

Why then are prosecutors persisting with the case?

Perhaps there is more to their case than Tippett knows or is willing to admit.

Or perhaps they know they have a weak case but have decided to try their luck with East Timor's notoriously capricious judiciary.

Or perhaps they're incompetent, and think their dud is a slam-dunk.

Or perhaps there really is something more sinister at work.

A conspiracy to convict Pires? Not exactly.

But there are very legitimate concerns that certain powerful people have, perhaps deliberately, compromised Pires' chances for a fair trial.

After Ramos Horta recovered from his injuries, he did a series of interviews in which he took direct aim at Pires.

He painted her as the mastermind of the attacks, a "very manipulative individual", and "the worst negative element in the entire process".

It was Pires, Ramos Horta claimed, who undermined his efforts to make peace with the rebels by "poisoning" Reinado's mind.

Ramos Horta had, it seemed, decided Pires was guilty before a court had the opportunity to test the allegations and evidence against her. Indeed, before investigators had even completed their work.

To come to such a conclusion privately was Ramos Horta's prerogative. But to declare it publicly, critics believe, was extremely irresponsible.

Ramos Horta is immensely popular in East Timor. He spent 24 years tirelessly campaigning for justice for his people while they suffered under Indonesian occupation. He was the independent nation's first foreign minister. He later became prime minister, before winning the presidency.

All of which is to say, his words carry weight in East Timor.

And that's why some believe the prosecutors, judges and witnesses involved in the trial will feel pressured to ensure it unfolds according to Ramos Horta's script; which ends with Pires in prison.

Critics also point to Ramos Horta's decision to privately meet with Reinado's men after he returned from Australia, where he spent nine weeks in hospital recovering from his injuries.

"The people he's spoken to are vulnerable to suggestion and vulnerable to enter agreements to give evidence that may not be truthful evidence," Tippett told The Australian newspaper.

Ramos Horta also drew criticism for proclaiming, before the trial began, that he would consider pardoning some or all of the accused. Such statements undermine the country's entire legal system. What's the point of having a judiciary if the president believes he has the right to overrule it before it's even made a ruling?

Arsenio Bano, vice president of East Timor's opposition Fretilin party and a former government minister, is highly critical of Ramos Horta's conduct.

"I am not optimistic about the trial," he says.

"There's been a lot of political influence over the case, it has been completely politicised.

"East Timor's justice system is still very weak. It still has a long way to go. And it is very vulnerable to political influence from politicians like the president of this country."

Bano is of the firm view Pires was no mastermind. (Evidently he has no qualms about expressing his opinion, even though he believes Ramos Horta was wrong to express his.)

"I see Angelita as a scapegoat.

"She was just a small fish that now is getting all the blame."

But why would Ramos Horta single out Pires as the mastermind of the attacks if she wasn't involved, or was only a marginal player?

"Angelita's an easy target," Bano says.

"She has no political connections; she was just Reinado's girlfriend."

It's not an entirely satisfactory response. Why would Ramos Horta need "an easy target" to blame for the attacks? He had more than 20 rebels - Reinado foremost among them - that he could blame.

Perhaps the president simply could not accept that Reinado, his friend, had concocted a scheme to murder him. Perhaps he wanted to believe this strange, sexy outsider who shared Reinado's bed had some hold over the rebel leader, a modern-day Mata Hari who pushed him down the path of violence.

All of this remains conjecture, of course. Which is precisely why there's a lot riding on the Dili District Court's trial. The East Timorese need answers, and the trial represents their best chance at getting them.

Pires is optimistic.

"I'm hoping we'll get close to the truth with this trial," she says.

Pires says she doesn't want a pardon from the president. She'll settle for nothing less than a full acquittal, and believes that's what she'll get if East Timor's justice system works as it should.

No comments: