05 October 2010

East Timor to suspend two top ministers

ABC RAdio Australia Updated October 4, 2010 12:44:03 - East Timor's deputy prime minister and foreign minister have been indicted over corruption allegations and may be suspended from parliament to face charges in court.

Both men have been in New York, representing East Timor at the United Nations General Assembly. But in their absence, East Timor's council of ministers has decided to suspend them from office, and parliament will now consider when the suspensions should take effect. Analysts say that if the suspensions go ahead, they could destabilise East Timor's coalition government and disrupt negotiations with Australia over an asylum seeker processing centre.

Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Michael Leach, lecturer, Swinburne University, Melbourne; statements from East Timor's council of ministers and Zacarias de Costa, East Timorese foreign minister

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LIAM COCHRANE: East Timor's council of ministers has indicated it will suspend two of its top government officials which will remove their parliamentary immunity and leave them open to prosecution in court.

Observers say the move has the potential to test the government's coalition alliance and destabilise negotiations with Australia over a regional asylum seeker processing centre.

It all goes back to 2006 when Jose Luis Guterres appointed his wife as counsel to East Timor's UN ambassador in New York and significantly raised her salary. An investigation by East Timor's ombudsman last year found Mr Guterres had engaged in maladministration, including indications of collusion and nepotism and broke a number of anti-corruption laws.

The foreign minister, Zacarias da Costa, is accused of signing off on the arrangement.

East Timor's council of ministers issued this statement on Thursday, indicating the two ministers will be suspended.

EXCERPT FROM STATEMENT: The council of ministers discussed the issue in order to understand, based on the documents sent by the public prosecutor's office, on the republic's constitution and on the penal code, from what date should the suspensions have become effective.

LIAM COCHRANE: The spokesman of East Timor's government, Agio Pereira, has also confirmed that the two ministers will definitely be suspended.

The foreign minister Zacarias da Costa issued this statement from New York.

EXCERPT FROM ZACARIAS DA COSTA STATEMENT: It was with interest that I learned about this latest development. However, I will await with serenity the progress of the judicial process. It is my intention to fully cooperate with the competent judicial authority in order to clarify the issue.

I hope that this judicial process is allowed to take its course and not become an issue for political speculation.

LIAM COCHRANE: Mr da Costa is due back in East Timor on October 9. Jose Luis Guterres was not available for comment but has previously denied any wrongdoing in the matter.

Michael Leach, a lecturer at Melbourne's Swinburne University, says the two suspensions could have wider implications for East Timor's coalition government.

MICHAEL LEACH: It has potential implications of instability for the balance of power in the parliament. The alliance with the parliamentary majority relies on all four major parties for its majority.

PSD (Social Democratic Party), which has already lost the deputy prime minister a couple of weeks ago, is the party that Zacarias da Costa belong to. So they will have lost two of their three ministerial positions if he is indeed suspended as is being reported.

Presumably that would only make more likely the risk, increase the risk that they might leave the AMP.

LIAM COCHRANE: The AMP is the parliamentary majority alliance of East Timor's parliament. It holds its majority by six seats, the same number of seats held by Mr da Costa's PSD party.

Michael Leach says suspension of the foreign minister could also disrupt negotiations with Australia's Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, about setting up a regional asylum seeker processing centre in East Timor.

MICHAEL LEACH: Whatever relationship has been established at this point between, say, Chris Bowen on the Australian side and Zacarias da Costa will have to be restarted with the new foreign minister if indeed Zacarias da Costa is suspended.

And the second implication really goes to the issue of who would replace Zacarias da Costa. You know, these do have some important implications depending on which player ends up in that role and that could in fact be a signal from the Timorese government about how they're treating the negotiation.

LIAM COCHRANE: Australia wants to set up a facility in East Timor, where asylum seekers will be detained while their applications are processed. The proposal initially received a lukewarm reception in Dili but discussions have been continuing on the issue.

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