11 October 2009

Timor Leste: Slow Progress for Corruption Watchdog

By MATT CROOK - IPS - Saturday, October 10, 2009 DILI - A lack of political will to tackle corruption in East Timor is holding the country back, said Sebastiao Ximenes, East Timor’s Ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice.

"What all people expect is that our leaders must have a good political will to fight corruption, but even if we have good legislation, even if we have good institutions, when we don’t have political will, we cannot fight corruption," he told IPS from his office in this capital.

Despite handing 28 cases of corruption involving members of the current and previous governments to the prosecutor general’s office, none have made it court.

"We don’t have decision power; we just have the power to recommend, so after our investigation, we forward our final investigation and recommendations to the prosecutor general’s office," he added. Two further copies are sent to the prime minister and the complainant in the case, he said.

Early this month, a leaked report from the ombudsman’s office surfaced in which Ximenes recommended an investigation be opened into Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres over allegations he abused his power by securing for his wife, Ana Maria Valerio, a well-paying United Nations job in New York in 2006.

According to the report Valerio was ineligible for the hefty salary she received after taking the job as counsel to the U.N. ambassador in New York, because she was neither a career diplomat nor a citizen of Timor-Leste, as the state is officially known. It added that she was also not entitled to a housing allowance.

Guterres, who could be jailed for up to 20 years if convicted of breaking the laws outlined in the report, returned to East Timor in 2006 to become foreign minister after serving as ambassador to the U.S. and to the U.N.

The actions of Guterres were "an abuse of power and breached the applicable laws resulting in irregularities and prejudice to the state in favour of family," according to the report.

The deputy prime minister, when phoned by IPS, declined to talk about the report. But the government on Monday hit back with a statement saying Guterres "did not, at any time, engage in any act or acts of corruption…

"Valerio had worked helping the Permanent Mission of [East Timor] to the United Nations since 2003, when needed, on a pro bono basis. She was awarded the position on merit and as a temporary provision."

Guterres served as foreign minister under the government of the current opposition Fretilin party, and in 2006 led a breakaway group, Fretilin Mudanca, in a failed attempt to take control of the party. This political spat could have a lot to do with the knives currently out for Guterres.

"Fretilin only made the claims of corruption after Guterres became [Deputy] Prime Minister in the IV Constitutional Government, led by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao," said the government statement.

For ombudsman Ximenes, who has been in his post for four years, it is likely another in a long line of shelved reports.

"It happened when [Guterres] was Minister of Foreign Affairs," he said. "I don’t know if he forgot about the law or maybe had no information about the law, or maybe his staff provided some misinformation, but what we reported is what we found."

But it is not just a lack of political will that is hampering progress of corruption cases in East Timor.

The country needs a separate anti-corruption law, and lawmakers, members of the government and all high-level civil servants should have to declare their assets, said Ximenes, adding that the work of his office does not always get the support it needs.

"Sometimes there is a lack of good cooperation between us and other institutions," he said. "Our law states that the ombudsman can access every institution to get information, but sometimes we face problems regarding our investigation when we want to get documents or information – sometimes they don’t provide us with it."

Although the ombudsman has strong ties with the prosecutor general’s office, it is not enough.

"From the side of the prosecutor general’s office, the problem is not that they are unwilling, but that they are unable," he said. "There is no manpower and no special prosecutors to deal with corruption cases."

With a backlog of about 5,000 cases at the prosecutor general’s office and with the state seemingly failing to tackle high-level corruption, the role of civil society may become even more important.

In August, non-governmental organisation Lalenok Ba Ema Hotu (LABEH) launched its National Campaign Against Corruption to raise awareness of corruption issues all over the country.

Speaking at the campaign’s launch in Dili, Guterres himself said, "If sometimes we say there are cases of corruption, we have to take these to court so the court can decide who has been involved in corruption, so they can go to jail and be expelled from the government or the civil service because the people, after all these years, deserve a better life."

Christopher Samson, LABEH executive director, said, "I could only say that most of the members of government do not understand what the work of the ombudsman is.

"It has nothing to do with the law, and therefore those who stood against the report of the ombudsman did so because it has to do with them personally," he added.

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