Weekly Insights and Analysis

In East Timor: A Litmus Test for the Judicial System

March 14, 2007

By By Katherine Hunter

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.

Related locations: Timor-Leste


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