Subject: East Timor offers clemency to criminals

Thursday June 7, 08:11 PM

East Timor offers clemency to criminals

Criminals in East Timor will be offered the chance of clemency for crimes committed in the past year under a new bill passed by the fledgling nation's parliament this week.

East Timor's government said the new law - which still has to be signed off by recently elected President Jose Ramos Horta - will help the tiny nation move forward from last year's crisis in which 37 people were killed.

But analysts fear the new law could spark new tensions in the nation, which is preparing to return to the polls to elect a new government.

Government minister Jose Teixeira denies it is a "blanket amnesty", saying murderers and rapists will not be eligible to apply.

He said the law, which offers criminals the chance to apply for clemency for "appropriate" crimes committed between April 2006 and April 2007, would assist prosecutors who were grappling with thousands of cases following last year's crisis within the new justice system.

"These crimes that were committed as a result of the crisis, there are a lot of people affected - if everybody was to be tried and convicted and given periods in jail, our jails will be bursting at the seams," Teixeira said.

"They are already bursting at the seams.

"One prosecutor handles 3000 cases.

"If we give this clemency as an incentive, it will open up the way for people to accept responsibility for their crimes.

"They won't go through a lengthy judicial process, the victims will get justice, and people will be found guilty of the offence.

"Getting to the truth is often the most important thing for a victim of crime.

"It doesn't give impunity or immunity."

Teixeira said people must first be convicted of a crime before they could apply to a court for clemency.

"What this does is it puts the period behind us and we can move forward," he said.

"Fretilin has always defended the need for the justice process to be fully implemented.

"This clemency law is unique in that it is only offers an application for clemency for appropriate cases ... after the judicial process has been gone through."

Teixeira would not comment on whether former Fretilin cabinet minister Rogerio Lobato would be eligible to apply.

Lobato was imprisoned last month after he lost an appeal against a seven and a half year sentence handed to him in March for his role in the violence that besieged the country last year.

The United Nations and other human rights groups hailed the court decision as proof the culture of impunity in East Timor would no longer be tolerated.

But International Crisis Group analyst Sophia Cason fears the new clemency law could diminish people's faith in the justice system, if Lobato was granted a pardon.

"The prosecution of Rogerio Lobato sent a signal that even those at the highest levels are not immune to justice," Cason said.

"If they are going to give some of those people amnesty, it will remove the population's faith in the justice system.

"If Rogerio Lobato is given amnesty, I think there will be outrage and it will end up in violence in the streets.

"When the violence stopped in March, it was because he was sentenced."

The new bill quietly passed through parliament this week, with 44 votes in favour and none against in the session which narrowly made quorum in the 88-seat house. There were two abstentions.

Teixeira said the bill had received support from opposition parties in parliament.

"I don't believe it will be controversial," he said.

Horta has 30 days in which to sign off on the bill, or refer it to the Court of Appeal for a decision on its constitutionality.

East Timor is preparing for its June 30 parliamentary elections to select a new government, with former president Xanana Gusmao's CNRT party widely tipped to pose a challenge to Fretilin, which has dominated East Timor politics since independence.


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