Notes from the Field

From Timor-Leste: Citizens Finally Able to Read Laws in Own Language

January 16, 2008

The newly independent nation of Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor) faces daunting challenges in implementing the rule of law. Until recently, most efforts have focused on the important “hardware” of the justice system: training judges and prosecutors, establishing courts, and adopting laws. With insights gained from five years of independence and the security crisis of 2006 and 2007, officials now realize that strengthening the rule of law also requires critical attention to the “software” side, including broad and regular public access to legal information resources ranging from increased availability of the text of new laws, materials that explain and highlight key provisions of the laws, and reference materials in languages commonly understood by a multi-lingual citizenry. Information needs in the justice sector are particularly acute because laws are written primarily in Portuguese, which is understood by less than 10% of the population. This means that almost no one has access to the basic Civil Procedures Code.

But now, to meet the needs of both justice sector actors and ordinary citizens, these documents are finally going to be published in Tetum, the language spoken by more than 90% of the population. For the Court of Appeal, The Asia Foundation is helping publish a bilingual reference volume in both Tetum and Portuguese, the country’s two official languages. Although all new laws and regulations are printed in the national gazette, the Jornal da Republica, it is difficult to obtain and is beyond most people’s budgets. As a result, with the publication of this essential legal reference tool, judges, prosecutors, law students, and private lawyers will now have ready access to the new Civil Procedures Code.
Another milestone is publication of the new book by Judge Duarte Tilman Soares, who was formally installed as one of the country’s first permanent judges in June 2007. Judge Soares has written the country’s first Tetum-language explanation of court responsibilities under the new Penal Procedures Code. In addition to descriptions of key provisions of the newly adopted Code, the book contains definitions and explanations for procedures that differ from the Indonesian penal procedures code previously used. The book’s forward is written by Chief Justice Claudio Ximenes, the country’s most senior judge, and will be distributed widely to judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and private lawyers, as well as to the Legal Training Center and university law faculties.

The Office of Prosecutor General recently completed three new brochures in the Tetum language designed to explain key provisions of the new Penal Procedures Code relating to prosecutorial services to citizens and officials alike. The brochures fill a critical gap in legal information. The security crisis of 2006-2007 illustrated major gaps in understanding the legal process and the prosecutor’s functions among all sectors. The first brochure provides an overview of responsibilities and functions of the Office of Prosecutor General, the second explains key responsibilities under the Penal Procedures Code, and the third focuses on the 72-hour detention hearing — one of the least understood procedures among citizens. The brochures will be distributed widely to judges, prosecutors, and public defenders, as well as to private lawyers, police, village councils, government officials, and citizens.

These publications are made possible by the support of USAID for The Asia Foundation’s Access to Justice program.

Katherine S. Hunter was The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Timor-Leste until January 2008 and is the Coordinator for the Luce Scholars Program.

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