21 July 2009

East Timor Ombudsman: prosecute Justice Minister

Australia Network News 21 Jul 2009 21:10:50 GMT+1000 East Timor's Ombudsman says the Justice Minister should be prosecuted. Stephanie March and Steve Holland Last - East Timor's Ombudsman is calling for the country's Justice Minister to be prosecuted following allegations of corruption.

The new call follows earlier ones from East Timor's opposition asking Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao to resign, after disclosures he authorised a multi-million dollar rice importation contract to a company linked to his daughter.

The Ombudsman says his office has launched an investigation into the Ministry of Tourism, Commerce and Industry over a number of deals authorised by Mr Gusmao.

Calls for prosecution

Allegations surfaced late last year that East Timor's Justice Minister, Lucia Lobato, had colluded with a friend in order for that friend to secure a $US1 million contract to rebuild a wall at the Becora prison in Dili, the capital.

At the time Ms Lobato said she welcomed an investigation by the Ombudsman into the allegations.

She said she was prepared to face justice, without using her ministerial immunities, if it found she was involved in any wrongdoing.

Following an investigation, the ombudsman has recommended the Prosecutor General investigate the case further, and prosecute Ms Lobato.

"Not only Minister of Justice, we also found some companies (were) involved in this project," Mr Ximenes said.

The Minister of Justice did not respond to requests by Radio Australia to comment.

More investigations

The recommendation follows recent revelations Mr Gusmao signed off on a $US3.5 million contract to a company part-owned by his daughter, Zenilda Gusmao.

The company - Prima Food - was one of 17 companies awarded government contracts to import rice into East Timor.

Several of the companies are part-owned by the wife of another government minister.

The contracts totalled $US56 million.

The opposition has called for Mr Gusmao to step down.

Mr Ximenes said his office has now launched an investigation into the the circumstances surrounding the Prime Minister and Commerce Minister's approval of the contracts.

"I received a letter from Mr Jose Ramos-Horta, the President of the Republic, to request to our office to conduct an investigation against the Commerce Minister," he said.

"Right now we (are) asking for some documents and maybe after that we can invite department officials and also maybe the Minister to come to our office and (get) some information and a declaration from him."

President defends Gusmao

East Timor's President Jose Ramos-Horta has conceded there's a chance of making mistakes when multimillion dollar contracts are signed by government officials.

Dr Ramos-Horta has defended the Prime Minister's role in authorising the contract to the company linked to his daughter.

"I think corruption is serious in Timor Leste but I reject the charges that top government officials are involved like the prime minister. The Prime Minister is a very very honest person," Dr Ramos-Horta said.

Investigation challenges

Mr Ximenes say he hopes the investigation into the issuing of rice-import contracts will be completed in two months, but he says that depends heavily on the level of cooperation from the government officials and companies involved.

"Because when our office invites them to come the office, sometimes they have some excuses not to come," he said.

Even if the investigation is completed in the expected time frame and passed on to the Prosecutor General, Mr Ximenes says East Timor's legal system already has a backlog of corruption cases.

"Prosecutor General already receive 28 case for corruption, but not one case they forward to the court," he said.

"I believe the problem they face is manpower."

East Timor's parliament recently passed legislation to set up an anti-corruption commission that would take on the role of the Ombudsman in dealing corruption allegations.

The commission has not yet been properly established.

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