Subject: O Jornal: Judge Rapoza in East Timor (part 2)


With Timor in the Heart

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series on the exploits of Judge Phillip Rapoza's mission to East Timor.

By Lurdes C. da Silva O Jornal Staff Writer

DARTMOUTH - Judge Phillip Rapoza says he returned home with a fresh perspective on life after living and working in East Timor for almost two years. While America continues to be the land of opportunity, he believes there are valuable lessons to be learned from the world's newest democracy.

"What strikes me the most is the degree to which we in the United States take so many things for granted," he said. "Simply put, we do not appreciate how fortunate we are. Nor do we Americans realize how different our lives are from those of other people around the world."

Whereas people in America are able to make choices relating to education, health, work, technology and even government, he maintains that does not exist in countries such as East Timor.

"Americans are surrounded by images of wealth and luxury and our society considers the pursuit of material comfort to be a priority," he said. "This is completely different from the situation in the developing world where the daily goal of most people is merely to survive."

During nearly 25 years of forced annexation by Indonesia, approximately one third of the East Timorese population was killed, wounded or became a refugee. On May 20, 2002, the former Portuguese colony finally celebrated its independence.

"As a young country, it is full of energy and optimism, despite the great suffering that it has endured," said Judge Rapoza. "Although life in East Timor can be quite hard, everywhere you go you are greeted with a smile. The Timorese do not emphasize the tragedy of the recent past in their daily lives and laughter still comes easily to them. I once asked a Timorese friend of mine why everyone seemed so happy, despite the many problems that they faced. His answer was to the point: 'We are happy to be free.'"

Until this past May, Rapoza served as chief judge on the United Nations Special Panels for Serious Crimes, which was established to conduct trials of criminals responsible for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, murder and torture during a campaign of terror perpetrated by those opposed to East Timor's independence. He then headed a Criminal Justice Advisory Team in Haiti.

Upon his arrival in the United States a few weeks ago, he said he encountered some difficulty readjusting to how American society elevates, but at the same time trivializes, the individual.

"In America we tend to be more self-centered than people are in East Timor, with the emphasis being on "me" and what "I" want," he said. "The slogan seems to be "look at me" and many people are happy to define themselves according to what they own or what they wear. Unfortunately, they give little consideration to who they are based on what they have done, especially for others. Two years in East Timor have reinforced my view that we rise to a higher level when we look outside ourselves and toward our fellow man."

Yet, Judge Rapoza acknowledges there is nothing wrong with maintaining a higher standard of living.

"Most people around the world would like to do exactly that. But a problem arises when the pursuit of riches becomes the most important purpose in life to the exclusion of all other things, including our duty to others," he said.

In his opinion, one of America's strengths is the wide scope that it gives to individual freedom.

"But that freedom is diminished if it serves no purpose more significant than choosing between two products on a store shelf," he said. "The freedom that the East Timorese are so thankful to have won has not yet been reduced to that level and their appreciation for what they have obtained remains profound. Perhaps this would be one area in which the world's oldest democracy could learn from the world's newest nation."

As a new nation, the judge believes East Timor is doing fine for the first time.

"It was incredibly rewarding for me to have the opportunity to help shape Timor's future by taking a lead in its judicial affairs so soon after independence," he said. "I spent a great deal of time working closely with the Timorese judges who served on the Special Panels for Serious Crimes. Prior to independence, the judges in East Timor were all from Indonesia, but they left when that country withdrew its military forces. As a result, all of the Timorese now serving as judges are new to the judiciary and none of them served on the bench prior to independence."

Part of his role was to mentor the Timorese judges and to help develop their capacity to serve in the judiciary.

"They will be the future judicial leaders of East Timor and I was always impressed by their dedication to rebuilding Timor's court system," he said. "They have struggled against very difficult odds, but they have become some of the finest judges I know. It was an honor and a privilege to serve with them."

However, conditions at the courthouse were not always the best.

"Public services, such as electricity, were only sporadically available," he said. "We often had to function without lights, computers, office equipment and even telephone service. More seriously, members of both our local and our international staff were routinely sick with tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, typhoid and amoebic dysentery."

To protect himself from being infected, Judge Rapoza not only took special precautions but also daily medication. Others weren't so fortunate.

"It was difficult to coordinate trials because lawyers or court staff members were often out sick," he said. "I remember one occasion where our court stenographer almost passed out during a trial. I recessed the proceedings and immediately had her sent to the UN hospital where it was discovered that she had malaria. In these circumstances, one of my common duties as head of the court was to visit staff members who had been hospitalized with one or more tropical diseases."

He developed intimate friendships with a number of Timorese staff members on the Special Panels for Serious Crimes.

"I visited their homes, went to their family weddings and attended their children's baptisms," he said. "We ate together, drank together, laughed and also cried together. In short, I became a member of the family."

He said life in East Timor, which is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, centers on the family.

"A person's most important connections are with other members of his or her extended clan. Life is viewed as a communal enterprise in which each person is part of a larger whole. This style of living emphasizes how people are connected to each other and reinforces the idea of interdependence within society. It also supports a spirit of civility among people that reinforces the dignity of each person."

On the day he left East Timor, all the local members of the court staff came to the airport with their families.

"It was an extremely moving experience that I shall never forget," he said.

The New Bedford native says he looks forward to resuming his position as Associate Judge of the Massachusetts Appeals Court next month.

"The work of the Court is quite challenging and it is professionally rewarding to serve at that level of the court system," he said, noting that he will supplement his service on the Court with activities related to his work in East Timor.

In the fall, he will speak at a conference on "International Criminal Tribunals in the 21st Century" in Washington, D.C. and lecture at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. He has also been asked to participate as one of the instructors at a training program for judges serving on an African war crimes court established by the United Nations and has been invited to participate in conferences next year in both Italy and Hungary.

"I have been asked to write several articles relating to international justice issues and I would like to continue doing so in the future," he said. "I have been asked to provide an introduction to a book about the Special Panels to be published next year in Europe. I have also been approached with respect to writing my own book about the court in East Timor and that is a possibility as well."

Rapoza, a grandson of immigrants from Santa Cruz and Água de Pau, in Lagoa, S. Miguel, Azores, was first appointed to the Massachusetts bench in 1992. A Yale graduate, he has extensive experience in the legal procedures of the Portuguese-speaking world and he is the editor of the bilingual "Guide to Criminal Law and Your Legal Rights." In 2002, President Jorge Sampaio of Portugal bestowed on him Portugal's highest civilian award, naming him a Comendador (Commander in the Order of Prince Henry the Navigator.)

In his view, the mission in East Timor not only was an important professional experience, but also offered a valuable personal lesson.

"I learned that when an opportunity to serve arises, as it did for me, you must seize the moment because it may not come your way again," he said. "You are never too old or too set in your ways to make a difference. The choice is up to you."

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