x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

UN calls for justice in East Timor

Four soldiers who killed eight unarmed police officers during weeks of rioting in the capital in 2006 were convicted but avoid jail.

DILI // Eriancy Situmora was in court last year when the four soldiers who killed her husband and seven other unarmed police officers were convicted of one of the worst atrocities during weeks of rioting in the capital in 2006. The East Timorese soldiers were sentenced to between 10 and 12 years each and collectively were ordered to pay Mrs Situmora - now a widowed mother of two - US$250 (Dh933) in compensation.

When the verdict was handed down by the civilian court, Mrs Situmora thought it was over. She thought justice had been served. But it had not. Today, not a single soldier sits in a civilian prison. All are still receiving a salary from the military, but not a penny has been paid to the victims. In a scathing UN report delivered this month to the UN Security Council, the East Timorese mission concluded the four soldiers "continue to evade serious detention".

Mrs Situmora does not care about the money, but she does care about justice. Her case typifies what critics have said is a disturbing lack of justice in East Timor. A problem, they said, which has its roots in the country's bloody separation from Indonesia in 1999 and led to the death of more than 1,000 civilians in a matter of months. Only five people remain in jail for those deaths, and in October, four will walk free.

This month, the United Nations mission in East Timor urged the country's leaders not to let those responsible for the 1999 bloodshed be let off the hook, pledging to provide support to prosecute hundreds of alleged perpetrators. The plea came on the heels of the Commission for Truth and Friendship (CTF) report, authored by the East Timor and Indonesian governments, and released in July. The report called for a strengthening of the judicial sectors in both countries and urged accountability.

But leaders in East Timor and Indonesia said last month the case was closed after expressing regret at the findings, which blamed Indonesian security and civilian forces for "gross human rights violations" as well as members of the East Timorese community. The two governments established the CTF in 2005, though the commission was boycotted by the United Nations over concerns of possible amnesties. In 2000, the United Nations established its own investigation and prosecution teams in East Timor, but so far, there has been little sign of justice.

Following the 1999 split, most of those implicated in the atrocities fled to Indonesia, but a UN serious crimes unit found hundreds of suspects still in East Timor. Yet, of the more than 400 people who were indicted, only 81 were convicted. Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's prime minister, has said the country is unlikely to revisit the 1999 cases. In an interview last month, Mr Gusmao said he was satisfied with the CTF report and that it was time to move on.

But victims of that violence now say that if the courts try cases from 2006 - when street clashes between rival factions of the security forces killed dozens - then the courts should hear their cases too. This year, Jose Ramos-Horta, the president, held a series of closed-door meetings with parliamentarians to try to push forward a law that may offer amnesty to anyone accused of crimes during the riots in 2006. The bill will likely go before parliament this year.

The law calls for the creation of an extra-judicial body, which would ask criminals to apologise to the community and - for such serious crimes as murder - take part in community service. An early version of the law says the state would pay victims up to $10,000 in compensation. A persuasive argument in a country where most live on less than $1 a day. Observers blame East Timor's lax justice system for years of civil unrest, an attempted assassination of the president this year and a general distrust of police and the courts. Despite years of UN and international criticism, there are few signs things are changing.

Earlier in the year, Mr Ramos-Horta signed off on blanket clemencies for 94 convicted criminals, including murderers, rapists and some militia leaders from 1999, clearing about 36 per cent of the prison population. The move stunned international observers, and was not popular at home. "The state has not defended the public's right to justice for crimes committed from 1975 to 1999," said Fernanda Borges, a member of parliament. Nor has there been much of a push to hold those accountable for the 2006 violence, she said.

According to a report backed by the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, 63 people should have been prosecuted and a further 64 investigated for crimes during 2006. Ms Borges understands that to push for justice is to push against the most powerful members of her own government, but she said she is ready for that fight. "If we don't want a culture of impunity and if we want a country where democracy prevails and where everyone has access to fair justice and a good court system, then we have to challenge now what the president is doing," she said.

@Email:jwright@thenational.ae