Subject: Freedom to kill in East Timor

Asia Times Online

Southeast Asia

Jun 25, 2008

Freedom to kill in East Timor

By Jesse Wright

DILI - While East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta is on a shortlist of candidates to become the nited Nations' next high commissioner for human rights, critics at home are fuming over his recent decision to grant early release from prison to 94 inmates, some of whom were convicted for crimes against humanity for their roles in the violent ransacking the country on its declaration of independence from Indonesia in 1999.

On May 19, Ramos-Horta quietly signed the release order, which according to Timorese lawyers should have first been subject to a judicial review to determine if the convicted were truly able to peacefully re-enter society. The apparent amnesty comes as political tensions are on the boil four months after an assassination attempt on Ramos-Horta and the botched kidnapping of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao by an armed rebel group. They also coincide with questions about the president's mental state after his long hospitalization in Australia, critics say.

Those released included Joni Marques, a notorious militia leader who in 2001 was found guilty of committing crimes against humanity, including torture and murder. He was originally sentenced to 33 years and four months in prison and briefly escaped in 2006. Critics contend Marques has never demonstrated remorse for the murders he ordered, including that of a Catholic nun.

His and the others' release was only discovered by chance last week when a Portuguese news reporter went to Dili's prison to interview Marques, only to be informed that the former militia leader was no longer in custody. "Many people in the community are saddened because they feel people like these should serve their entire sentence," said Alfredo de Araujo, a radio producer from Lospalos, a town on Timor's eastern tip.

So far the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) representative, local legal watchdog groups and members of Commission A, a parliamentary committee which oversees judicial processes, have not seen the actual court order for their releases. "We haven't been consulted at all on any of this," said Fernanda Borges, president of Commission A. "It seems the courts are operating without rules at the moment."

Louis Gentile, the local UNHCR representative, has warned that the early releases could represent a danger to public security as militia members convicted of crimes against humanity were now back on the streets and apparently free to reorganize.

"The establishment and development of rule of law are critically important to restoring stability in Timor-Leste," said US ambassador Hans Klemm, according to press reports. "By-passing the national judicial system would weaken the very institutions required to ensure justice."

Observers in Dili wonder why Ramos-Horta would pardon such potentially dangerous prisoners at a time of political turmoil. The president has yet to publicly explain his decision and was unable to be reached by telephone for this story. Many here suspect the assassination attempt, which nearly claimed his life and left him hospitalized after heavy surgery, played a part in his controversial decision.

The 58-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ramos-Horta is still recovering from three gunshot wounds inflicted during the failed assassination bid. He has said, while under an induced coma following the attack, that God defended him against demons who had tried to claim his soul. Since his return to Timor from an Australian hospital two months ago, Ramos-Horta has variously compared himself to India's Mahatma Gandhi and US civil rights crusader Dr Martin Luther King, and emphasized his heartfelt desire for forgiveness over the assassination attempt.

Appeasing the rebels

Ramos-Horta, however, is not the first Timorese president to order controversial clemencies. In 2005, former guerrilla fighter, then-president and now prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, shaved eight years off Marques' and his cohorts' original prison sentences to mark the country's second independence day. Gusmao said at that time that the sentence reductions were "a symbolic act of forgiveness".

One of Asia's poorest countries, Timor has, since achieving independence from Indonesia in 1999 and leaving UN custodial care in 2002, sought to maintain good relations with its large and wealthier former occupier. That's a delicate policy to maintain locally in light of Jakarta's well-documented military support for the militia-led destruction of the island in 1999 after the Timorese voted for independence in a national referendum.

Although Ramos-Horta's amnesty release is not clearly related to any known diplomatic effort to appease Indonesian interests, political allies Gusmao and Ramos-Horta have been reluctant to attempt to extradite and try in Timor any Indonesians associated with the 1999 spasm of violence and destruction. According to reports at the time, militias were responsible for the destruction of 75% of the island's infrastructure and the deaths of 1,300 people.

This year, in his first state trip abroad as prime minister, Gusmao met with Eurico Guterres, the notorious Indonesia-backed militia leader who fled East Timor after the 1999 violence. An Indonesian court charged Guterres with crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

He was released this year after his conviction was overturned by Indonesia's Supreme Court. According to press reports that quoted Guterres, he met with Gusmao to discuss Dili's relations with the adjacent Indonesian province of West Timor, where Guterres has said he hopes to run for election to Indonesia's parliament.

Among the recent releases ordered by Ramos-Horta, Marques is the most notorious former militia member. He once led the Indonesia-backed youth militia known as Team Alpha in Timor's easternmost district, and, like other militia groups, he terrorized Timorese who supported independence rather than autonomy within Indonesia.

In September 1999, just before UN troops arrived in Timor, Marques and Team Alpha placed a roadblock in front of a church delegation delivering humanitarian aid and shot nine people, including two Catholic nuns. They later dumped their bodies in a nearby river, according to the court testimony that led to his conviction.

Marques refused during his trial to name any Indonesians who may have supported his armed group. The UN-backed Serious Crimes Panel, which convicted Marques for crimes against humanity, also indicted 2004 Indonesian presidential candidate General Wiranto and charged him with crimes against humanity. Wiranto has never appeared in a Timorese court, nor has he ever been charged or tried for the alleged crimes in Indonesia. Paulo and Joao da Costa, brothers and key members of Team Alpha, as well as Sakunar militia member Mateus Lao, were also included in the recent release order.

Disregarding the UN

From 1999 to 2005, the UN-backed Serious Crimes Unit indicted nearly 400 people for crimes committed during the 1999 orgy of violence. Over the past four years however only 48 people have been convicted, two of which were later overturned. According to independent estimates, there are currently five or fewer convicted militia members still in Timorese detention. The rest of the indicted have filtered back into society, raising worries that the country's cycle of violence will not end any time soon, particularly in light of the recent rebel-led assassination attempt against Ramos-Horta.

Ramos-Horta's recent amnesty did not end with apparent pardons for the 1999 violence. Rogerio Lobato, the former interior minister who was found guilty in court of arming the civilian militia groups in 2006 which led to nationwide civil unrest, dozens of deaths and left over 100,000 homeless, was also recently released. In March 2007 he was found guilty of illegally distributing weapons to vigilante groups and was given a sentence of seven-and-a-half years in prison.

Lobato was the only person to serve any jail time for the 2006 violence, which eventually led to the armed intervention of Australian and New Zealand peacekeepers, but spent a mere five months in detention before boarding a luxury jet and leaving Timor for emergency heart treatment in Malaysia. Lobato has never returned from that alleged emergency health evacuation and several sources say he's currently vacationing in the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

The UN's Gentile has previously said such flagrant disregard for the rule of law and human rights would cause the UN mission to reevaluate its mandate. "Fundamental principles are not to be played with," he recently said, referring to Ramos-Horta's soft treatment of those convicted of crimes against humanity.

But, it is not the first time Ramos-Horta has failed to heed the UN's counsel. Critics cite the case of former defense minister Roque Rodrigues, who according to UN investigations had extensive knowledge about illegal weapons transfers in the run-up to the 2006 violence but did nothing to stop them. He resigned his office in May 2006 and after months of investigation the UN pushed for Rodrigues's prosecution for complicity in the violence.

The government never pressed charges and Rodrigues was never brought before a judge. Instead he was subsequently made a security advisor to Ramos-Horta, and in an apparent diplomatic snub, was appointed over the weekend to a new UN-sponsored security sector reform team. "We are also concerned, as a matter of principle, that justice is done and seen to be done for perpetrators of ... serious offenses cited in the [UN] Commission of Inquiry report relating to the events of April through May 2006," said Gentile.

Those controversial actions also have local civil society and legal groups up in arms. "The freedom of such perpetrators may bring into question [East Timor's] international human rights commitments," said Timotio de Deus, a lawyer and head of the Judicial Systems Monitoring Program in Timor. "However laudable in spirit, attempts to move on from the country's legacy of violence must not outweigh the rule of law."

Ramos-Horta's clemency is also pouring cold water on his bid to eventually leave government service and head the United Nations top human rights body, where he is currently among short-listed candidates to win the prestigious post. Local groups contend he is not qualified for the position. "I am worried with what he's doing to my country with respect to the rule of law and human rights," member of parliament Fernanda Borges said. "I leave it to the deciding panel to choose someone who really, really wants to defend human rights in the world. But [Ramos-Horta's] track record in my country with his presidential pardons does not speak well."

Borges said a number of politicians and civil society groups plan to go before a court of appeal later this week and present their case to reverse Ramos-Horta's early releases. Yet it is altogether unclear how the government would respond should the appeals court move to reverse the presidential order.

Jesse Wright is a freelance journalist based in East Timor.

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