Subject: Time: East Timor Judges Fail Their Test

Time Asia February 14, 2005 / No. 6

East Timor Judges Fail Their Test


Built from scratch like so much of East Timor after the militia rampages in the wake of 1999's independence vote, the nation's justice system is now facing a critical setback. All 22 of its Timorese judges, some of whom have been presiding over prosecutions for crimes against humanity in the Special Panels for Serious Crimes, have failed their probationary evaluation and are no longer qualified to hear cases. "People ask me, How about those people who have been sent to jail already?" says Carmelita Moniz, who has ruled on hundreds of civil and criminal cases since being appointed in 2000, "and I can't answer them."

None of the East Timorese judges had any courtroom experience when they were appointed, and the fledgling judicial system has been plagued by delays and claims by ngos of poor decision-making. The President of the Court of Appeal, Claudio Ximenes, who, as president of the Superior Council of the Judiciary, announced the evaluation results on Jan. 25, says they didn't surprise him: he knew "from the cases coming to the Court of Appeal that they were not skilled."

Nineteen judges appealed against them last week; six, including Moniz, have been reappointed to finish their scheduled work on the Special Panels for Serious Crimes, the Court of Appeal and the National Commission for Elections, working alongside a handful of international judges already in Timor on secondment. The Judicial System Monitoring Programme, an ngo, says it's concerned their reappointments aren't valid, and that a large backlog of cases - already numbering more than 1,000 - will increase the problem of defendants being held in custody longer than is legal. Evaluation results for the country's public defenders and prosecutors are expected soon.

Adding to the urgency is that on May 20 the mandate of the U.N. Mission of Support in East Timor ends and the international judges, including Ximenes, a High Court judge in Portugal, are due to leave. "As far as we know, no one has decided what to do about that," says JSMP spokesperson Sophia Cason of the deadline.

The judges last week began a two-and-a-half year training course - conducted in Portuguese, which Moniz says she and most of her colleagues barely understand - on $150 a month, half their normal salary. Moniz says that won't be enough for her to support her family, so once her hearings finish, in mid-year, she plans to look for another job. "I have spent five years for nothing," she says.

But Claudio Ximenes says East Timorese should feel reassured by the judges' removal: "People are more confident when they can see that if somebody is not skilled, they are not allowed to serve as career judges."

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