In East Timor: A Litmus Test for the Judicial System
March 14, 2007
Fairly or unfairly, the trial of former East Timorese Minister of Interior, Rogerio Lobato, is a litmus test for East Timor’s beleaguered judicial system. Indicted for misappropriation of public property, murder — and the unauthorized importation or use of firearms to disrupt public order — Mr. Lobato is the first senior government official to be tried in the aftermath of the violence in May 2006. This violence led to the government’s request for intervention by more than 3,000 security forces from Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Portugal and subsequently to an expanded United Nations mission including 1,600 UN Police.
After much anticipation, the three-judge panel delivered the verdict to a packed courtroom on March 7, 2007. Mr. Lobato received a sentence of 7.5 years for arming civilian hit squads and for exceeding his authority. Due to heavy presence of UN Police outside the courthouse, pro- and anti-Lobato demonstrators remained calm, thus alleviating concern that the verdict would spark greater violence. Public reaction to the verdict was muted, though many citizens were disappointed by the light sentence: they expected up to 32 years imprisonment for Mr. Lobato’s role in last year’s unrest. Mr. Lobato remains under house arrest pending the filing of an appeal by his lawyer.
Much rests on the outcome of the Court of Appeal’s decision. The choices before the court include overturning or reaffirming the verdict, as well as reduction or increase of the sentence. Each decision has pitfalls in a country with an omnipresent rumor mill and where continuing unrest and the election campaign season are fueling ever-changing alliances.
For the judiciary, it’s a key test of the fledgling and struggling system, and a chance for the rule of law to take firmer root. There are widely held perceptions of impunity in East Timor due to both an overburdened and weak judicial system, and citizens’ poor understanding of judicial procedures. Since the “court of public opinion” has already tried and judged Mr. Lobato, any reduction of his sentence ” or overturning of the verdict itself – will fuel more rumors of political interference in the judicial process as well as reaffirming the weakness of the system and reinforcing the perception of impunity. More importantly, Mr. Lobato’s fate is the proxy for a nation wanting someone to blame for last year’s events. Mr. Lobato’s imprisonment will thus be seen as a key sign of “justice” ” a high-level official facing consequences for acting against the interests of all of those harmed and made more vulnerable from the widespread burning, looting, and violence in Dili that led more than 150,000 citizens (15% of the total population) to flee their homes to displaced persons camps.
As the campaign for the presidential election on April 9th gets underway and citizens worry about the search for military police deserter Alfredo Reinado in the rugged hills south of Dili, the nation waits for news of Mr. Lobato’s fate and wonders whether the rule of law will prevail.
About our blog, In AsiaIn Asia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia's development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, In Asia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.
In Asia is posted and distributed every Wednesday evening, Pacific Time and is accessible via email and RSS. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].
ContactFor questions about In Asia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].
The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104
PO Box 193223
San Francisco, CA 94119-3223
THE LATEST ACROSS ASIA
Columbia University Weatherhead East Asian Institute: “Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia:” Video and Photos
December 2, 2016
NPR: Amid Economic Crisis, Mongolians Risk Their Lives For Do-It-Yourself Mining
December 1, 2016
Research Reveals Cambodian Television Rife with Depictions of Violence Against Women
November 30, 2016
Charter Outlines 10 Actions to Prevent Violence Against Women and Children in Timor-Leste
November 30, 2016
Asia Foundation Releases Study of Private Perceptions of Corruption (STOPP) in Mongolia
November 30, 2016
Public Program: The Asia Foundation’s 2016 Survey of the Afghan People
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: The Future of the Rebalance
Recommendations for the incoming U.S. president on policy toward Asia