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21 July 2009

Trials begin over 2008 Horta-Gusmao 'assassination attempt'

By Patrick O’Connor 18 July 2009 wsws.org - Dual East Timorese and Australian citizen Angelita Pires is now on trial, facing a series of charges relating to last year’s so-called assassination and coup attempt against the country’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and President Jose Ramos-Horta. The court, which convened last Monday, has heard the prosecution allege that Pires is guilty of attempted murder and conspiring to kill the president on the grounds that she was the “indirect author” of
these events.

Initial proceedings have underscored the numerous unanswered contradictions and
far-reaching political interests involved in the events of February 11, 2008.

The official account, first promoted by the Timorese government and the
Australian media and now advanced by Pires’s prosecutors, is that Alfredo
Reinado—Pires’s partner and former military-police commander—had led his
men in an unsuccessful coup attempt and was killed after attacking Ramos-Horta
and his security detail. Along with Pires, 23 ex-soldiers and 4 of their
associates, including Reinado’s senior colleague Gastao Salsinha, are on
trial. President Ramos-Horta has suggested that he may pardon the men.

The official account is unsupported by the evidence and believed by virtually
no-one in East Timor. Based on what is now known, it is almost certain that
Reinado and his men were lured into Dili, after being told they had an
appointment for a discussion with Ramos-Horta, in order to be executed. The
World Socialist Web Site was alone in raising this possibility immediately
after the February 11 events.

Pires has rejected the charges laid against her. Her Australian barrister Jon
Tippett, QC has said that the trial highlights the disastrous state of the
Timorese legal system, which he described as “one of the most substantial
failures that the United Nations has ever engaged in”.

Pires’s legal team received access to the prosecution’s voluminous files
just days before the trial opened, rather than the months normally granted to
allow adequate preparation. “I’m very concerned about it being a fair
trial,” Tippett told the ABC, “because I’ve now had complete access to 25
volumes of the prosecution case and there is no substantive evidence or
properly admissible evidence that could possibly support any of the charges
that have been brought against her. Now in those circumstances I would expect
any responsible prosecuting authority to withdraw these charges against her at
the earliest opportunity. The fact that the case is still going to trial gives
me concern that this is not a legal case, it’s a political case.”

Significantly, Tippett has indicated that he intends to prove Pires’s
innocence by demonstrating that Reinado was killed after attending what he
believed was a meeting arranged with Ramos-Horta. “The evidence seems to
point to a different story to the one which people have been receiving through
the media and certainly from sources in the government of Timor-Leste to
date,” the lawyer told Timorese newspaper Tempo Semanal. “The [real] story
seems to be one of Reinado coming to meet the president and in the course of
that event he’s shot at extremely close range ... in what appears to be an
assassination.”

Prosecutors last week attempted to have Tippett and Pires’s other senior
counsel, Brazilian Zeni Arndt, thrown out of court on the grounds of their
alleged lack of standing in Timor’s legal system. The two lawyers were told
to sit in the viewing gallery for part of the first day’s proceedings, but
the presiding judge ultimately decided to permit them to participate.

Pires’s defence lawyers have said they may call 150 witnesses, likely
resulting in court proceedings lasting several months.

The trial has the potential to prove highly damaging to both the Timorese and
Australian governments. The immediate questions raised by the charge that
Reinado was set up for assassination is: who was responsible and what was the
motivation? In line with the legal adage cui bono?—who benefits—suspicion
must firstly fall upon forces around Gusmao as well as Australian personnel in
Dili and Canberra.

/Reinado, Gusmao, and the Australian government/

Born in 1967, Reinado fled Indonesian-occupied East Timor for Australia in
1995. He returned during the country’s transition to formal independence and
joined the newly created armed forces; from 2003 to 2005 he spent several
months studying and training with the Australian army in Canberra. Then in May
2006, as commander of a platoon of military police, Reinado and his men joined
the mutiny of a section of the army known as the “petitioners”, who had
rebelled against the Fretilin government led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

The exact circumstances leading up to the split in the military remain unclear,
but there is evidence suggesting that then President Xanana Gusmao was
centrally involved in preparing the provocation as a means of destabilising the
Alkatiri administration. Gusmao had been openly siding with the most right-wing
sections of the Timorese elite, who were opposed to the Fretilin
government—including former Indonesian militia members, criminal gangs,
larger landowners, and the powerful Catholic Church.

The Australian government was also a leading participant. It seized upon the
petitioners’ uprising to dispatch more than one thousand Australian and New
Zealand soldiers to the impoverished state as part of a calculated
regime-change operation. The media played an especially foul role, with the
ABC’s “Four Corners” program promoting baseless accusations that the
prime minister had formed a hit squad to assassinate his opponents. Alkatiri
eventually acquiesced to the pressure, and chose to hand over power in June
rather than risk a popular movement against the coup plotters developing beyond
Fretilin’s control.

Reinado enjoyed close relations with both Gusmao and the Australian forces.
After he had taken up arms against the elected government, and killed several
security force personnel in a vicious ambush in Dili, Gusmao wrote Reinado a
friendly letter encouraging him to withdraw his men from the capital. The
president subsequently paid for Reinado’s hotel bill when the soldier stayed
in the central town of Ailieu for six weeks. During this time the “rebel”
held talks with high-ranking Australian military personnel and was feted in the
Australian media as a “folk hero” heading a popular movement against the
government.

What followed was a series of murky episodes that pointed to the close ties
between Reinado and Australian military and intelligence personnel. In July
2006, Portuguese police arrested the former soldier in a Dili house, which he
had used to store weapons and which was located directly opposite an Australian
military base. A few weeks later Reinado was somehow able to walk out of a
prison that Australian and New Zealand troops were responsible for guarding. In
March 2007, shortly after a proposed deal on Reinado’s surrender—negotiated
with Gusmao and Ramos-Horta—fell through, the Australian government deployed
100 elite SAS troops to lead a raid on Reinado’s base in the central mountain
town of Same. The former major was again somehow able to evade detention,
walking away from the clash unscathed. Later, after Gusmao and Ramos-Horta
called off the official manhunt, Reinado and the Australian army exchanged
information about each other’s movements—using Angelita Pires as the
go-between.

The turning point in Reinado’s various manoeuvres came in January 2008, when
he released a DVD accusing Gusmao of being behind the 2006 crisis, and
threatened to provide additional details in future statements. Reinado’s
damning allegation, apparently triggered by a breakdown in negotiations with
Gusmao over the terms of his surrender, exacerbated the crisis of the prime
minister’s unstable coalition government.

On February 7 last year, President Ramos-Horta convened a meeting of
parliamentarians from both government and opposition parties to announce his
support for Fretilin’s demand for new elections, which Gusmao was bitterly
resisting. Canberra no doubt also viewed with extreme alarm the prospect of
another national vote, having expended significant resources, firstly in
ousting Alkatiri in 2006, and then in assisting the coming to power of the
Gusmao government through the 2007 parliamentary elections held under
Australian military occupation.

Ramos-Horta scheduled further discussions on the question of a fresh
election—but these were never held. Reinado was killed just four days after
the initial meeting. His death fortuitously eclipsed the threat that Gusmao’s
true tole in the 2006 crisis would emerge. Moreover, Gusmao seized on the
so-called coup attempt to announce a “state of siege”, under which he
assumed sweeping authoritarian powers. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd meanwhile
rushed to dispatch another 190 soldiers and federal police, bolstering the
increasingly unpopular Australian occupation force.

There was, therefore, ample reason for both Gusmao and Canberra to want Reinado
eliminated. On the other hand, no-one has ever provided a plausible explanation
as to why Reinado would want to kill Ramos-Horta. Certainly prosecutors in the
Pires trial have so far provided no motive. The president had visited Reinado
in mid-January and agreed to a secret amnesty deal that would see the former
major avoid imprisonment in return for surrendering his arms and returning to
Dili. Ramos-Horta, in other words, was Reinado’s best—and last—hope of
securing his freedom.

/Prosecution contradictions/

There are countless outstanding questions regarding the events of February 11.
How did Reinado and his men avoid detection by Australian troops and police as
they travelled as an armed convoy up to President Ramos-Horta’s residence?
Did Australian intelligence agencies have prior knowledge of what has being
planned, given that Reinado made dozens of mobile phone calls, including to
Australia and Indonesia, in the days before his death? Did the alleged ambush
on Gusmao’s vehicle, led by Reinado’s associate Gastao Salsinha, actually
take place, or was it a staged fraud, as Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri has
alleged?

A full and comprehensive account of what happened may never emerge; critical
evidence was deliberately sabotaged in the aftermath of Reinado’s shooting.
The bodies of Reinado and Leopoldino Exposto were moved and tampered with by
Timorese police and soldiers, Reinado’s clothing was removed, his mobile
phone used, and his weapon interfered with. The rifle used to shoot Reinado and
Leopoldino from point-blank range has never been properly examined.

The prosecution’s case has already begun to unravel, after just five days of
court proceedings.

Reinado’s fellow “rebel”, Marcelo Caetano is accused of shooting
President Ramos-Horta. This is despite Ramos-Horta himself previously telling
the media that Caetano was not responsible. “Marcelo Caetano was wrongly
accused,” the president told the Age in October last year. “I never said it
was him. It was a media beat-up.”

This “media beat-up” is now the central pivot upon which the prosecution
apparently hopes to build its case. Two of Ramos-Horta’s guards testified
this week that the gunman who shot Ramos-Horta was wearing a balaclava at the
time. One, Pedro Soares, said he could not identify the man because his face
was hidden, but the other, Isaac da Silva, insisted that the attacker was
definitely Caetano and that he recognised him, “from the way he was standing
and his attitude”. Lawyers for the accused noted that da Silva’s testimony
contradicted his earlier statement to investigators in which he said that he
had not recognised the gunman. Also unexplained is the contradiction between
the prosecution’s charge that Ramos-Horta’s attacker was wearing a
balaclava with the president’s statement, again made to the Age last year,
that he had seen the gunman’s “face and eyes” immediately before the
shooting.

Ramos-Horta, who has issued numerous statements against Pires in the lead up to
the trial, is now remaining silent.

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