06 March 2010

Pires Freed But Many Questions Remain About Kill Plot

Adam Gartrell, South-East Asia Correspondent DILI, East Timor, March 5 AAP - When East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta gave his first public interviews after being shot in 2008 he was quick to point the finger at Australian Angelita Pires.

Ramos Horta accused Pires of undermining his efforts to make peace with her lover, rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, who was shot dead in the shootout at the president's Dili compound.

"She is a very manipulative individual; the worst negative element in the entire process," he declared on Australian television two months after the February 11 attacks that also targeted Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

Ramos Horta stopped short of naming Pires the attacks' mastermind. But he clearly believed she pushed Reinado and his men down a violent path.

The Dili District Court this week decided differently.

After a seven-and-a-half-month trial, the court found there was insufficient evidence to support prosecutors' claims she was an "indirect author" of the assassination attempts.

An emotional Pires, 44, walked free from the court.

"I am extremely relieved to be exonerated by the court of any involvement in the events of February 11, 2008," she said.

"My life has been on hold for over two years and it has been an enormously stressful and emotional time for me and for my loved ones."

The Australian government, which funded Pires' defence, was also quietly relieved.

If an Australian citizen had been jailed over a case so clearly unsupported by evidence it would have put serious strain on diplomatic ties, sources say.

Indeed, the prosecution's case against Pires was so weak many people were stunned it made it to trial.

Pires' legal team, led by Darwin QC Jon Tippett, systematically demolished the case - which they described as "a very badly-written fairy tale" - in the courtroom.

"It is only an association with the man she loved that resulted in her name finding its way into the indictment," they said in their closing address.

"Angelita Pires has been grievously and wrongly accused.

"She has been publicly vilified and maliciously abused by persons in positions of power without any foundation in fact."

But 23 of Reinado's men were convicted over the attacks.

Nine were sentenced to 16 years' prison for the attack on Ramos Horta's home.

Fourteen, including Reinado's second-in-command Gastao Salsinha, were sentenced to around 10 years' prison for the attack on Gusmao's motorcade.

But the court's verdict left many key questions unanswered.

Most notably: who shot Ramos Horta?

Numerous witnesses identified rebel Marcelo Caetano - among those given a 16-year sentences - as the gunman.

But the court found his weapon was not that which shot the president.

In fact, none of the weapons tested by investigators matched the bullets that wounded Ramos Horta.

It remains entirely possible Ramos Horta was in fact shot by one of his own guards in crossfire.

Secondly: who killed Reinado and fellow rebel Leopoldino Exposto?

Presidential guard Francisco Lino Marcal has long claimed he shot the men from a distance of up to 30 metres.

But an Australian Federal Police (AFP) ballistics report proved he could not have done so.

The report found the bullets used by Marcal's weapon differed from those that killed Reinado and Exposto and that, in fact, each man was killed by a different gun - neither of which has been found.

Autopsy reports also undermined Marcal's claims.

Citing "burning and blackening" around the rebel's wounds, forensic pathologist Muhammad Nurul Islam concluded they were shot at extremely close range - no further than 10 centimetres.

Although Islam did not appear before the court (for reasons that remain unclear), one of Australia's top forensic pathologists, Stephen Cordner, threw his support behind Islam's findings.

"The facts support the conclusion that Francisco Marcal and other FFDTL (East Timorese military) personnel have lied to the court," Pires' lawyers said.

"The evidence supports the conclusion that the anonymous men who killed Reinado and Exposto must have known that they shot and killed (them), because they did so at point blank range, but have not told investigators they did so.

"The only reason ... for the killers of Reinado and Exposto not to have advised authorities they had killed the two men and not surrender their weapons is that they were aware they had committed a crime."

The court accepted Marcal could not have killed the rebels.

But it did not accept the defence team's alternative hypothesis for what happened that morning: that Reinado and his men were in fact lured to Dili to be executed.

Pires' team argued there was not enough proof to conclude Reinado and his men came to Dili with murder on their minds.

"It is open on the evidence that the trip had the innocent purpose of furthering the negotiations between the president and Alfredo Reinado," they told the court.

Once there, Reinado and Exposto were gunned down, the theory goes. So the rebels started firing.

This shouldn't be dismissed as a mere conspiracy theory.

Even the AFP believes the events of that morning could have been someone's "successful trap to finally silence Reinado".

The full truth may never be known.

In part, that's because the investigation was woeful.

Investigators failed to properly secure the crime scene so important evidence was not preserved. They failed to take critical crime scene measurements. They failed to properly examine the weapons supposedly found with Reinado and Exposto. The cataloguing of exhibits was mishandled. Important pieces of evidence - like Reinado's mobile phone - went missing. A crime scene plan was inaccurate.

To make matters worse, no crime scene investigators appeared before the court to be cross examined.

Nor, for that matter, did Ramos Horta or Gusmao.

Both men were important witnesses who made very public pronouncements about what happened that day.

So why did they choose to avoid courtroom questioning?

"The fact that the president has refused to personally appear before the court and give evidence is of considerable concern," Pires' lawyers said.

"The ability to cross-examine an important witness is an essential right of any accused person and a failure to permit an accused person to exercise that right is a serious denial of fairness and justice."

Still more questions beg to be answered.

Such as: what was Reinado's motive?

Why would he try to kill Ramos Horta, who, by all accounts, he respected and trusted?

After all, Reinado and Ramos Horta had been working towards an amnesty.

Why would Reinado suddenly decide Ramos Horta had to die?

The court failed to satisfactorily answer these questions.

And perhaps because so many questions remain unanswered, several outlandish theories about what happened that day have taken root in Timor.

Some believe Gusmao orchestrated the whole thing in a bid to get rid of both Reinado and Ramos Horta. The attack on his vehicle, the theory goes, was staged to make it look like he too was a target.

An alarming number of people believe Ramos Horta was the puppeteer and that he faked his injuries.

Whatever really happened, Pires says she's going to stay in Timor - after a brief visit to Darwin to see family - to support Reinado's "innocent" men and work towards their freedom.

"I will not abandon them, I will continue to fight, I will continue to look for their liberty."

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