Convictions send strong message on state justice system
Sitting on the verandah of his rebuilt home, Camilio dos Santos, the chief of Galitas hamlet (aldeia), reflected on how conflicts used to be resolved in Timor-Leste. (Lee versaun Tetum iha ne'e)
“Before independence we relied only on traditional justice to resolve any disputes in communities. It is good that now we have our own state justice system which we can trust,” he said.
Memories of a 2011 conflict between local youths are still fresh in the minds of Mr dos Santos and many of his neighbours.
- UNDP has been working to strengthen Timor-Leste’s justice sector since 2003, supporting the Ministry of Justice, the Legal Training Centre (LTC), the Office of the Prosecutor General and the Public Defender’s Office.
- Since 2007, 51 Timorese judges, prosecutors and public defenders have graduated from the LTC.
- UNDP has also supported the decentralization of legal services. Judges, prosecutors, public defenders and support staff are now deployed full time in each of the country’s four district jurisdictions.
In August 2011, members of the Faithful Fraternity of the Lotus (PSHT) martial arts group from the neighbouring village razed Galitas to the ground, burning 57 houses.
The PSHT youths went on a rampage in Galitas after a member of their group was killed by a member of rival group, Wise Children of the Land (KORK). Fighting, rioting and harassment of local residents continued for two days before the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) were able to restore law and order.
While Mr dos Santos’ house was one of those burnt down in the conflict, he and other community members have just had the satisfaction of seeing 14 perpetrators convicted by the courts.
The panel of judges who read out the sentences on 22 January did so in difficult conditions. Tight security was provided by the PNTL, with the court room crowded, hot and tense. The 21 defendants sat on one side of the court. Relatives and other PSHT members packed the gallery on the other side of the court room.
Of the 21 accused, 13 people each received sentences of 20 years, while the ringleader was given a 22-year sentence. The remaining seven defendants were acquitted.
The Court also ordered the perpetrators to pay compensation to all Galitas residents whose houses had been burnt.
After reading out the sentence, Judge Pedro Raposo de Figueiredo told those convicted that “violence cannot be justified by any means”.
“Only the State has the responsibility for delivering justice, no other person or group in society. There is freedom of association, but [that freedom] cannot extend beyond the law,” he said.
It was emotional end to a long trial. On hearing their sentences, some of the convicted and some of their relatives broke down.
“If I had known what was going to happen, I would have stopped my son from wrong-doing and being involved in these problems with martial arts,” said the father of one of youths convicted.
Presiding Judge Alvaro Maria Freitas said while the logistics of the case were complicated, it was not a difficult case legally.
Judge Freitas, like almost all Timorese judges currently on the bench, is a graduate of the UNDP-supported Legal Training Centre (LTC). The Centre, which has received UNDP support since 2003, is Timor-Leste’s only postgraduate training institute for justice sector professionals.
The LTC provides two-and-a-half year postgraduate training programmes to Timorese judges, prosecutors and public defenders. Programme graduates are qualified to work in the country’s courts, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the Public Defender’s Office. Since 2007, a total of 51 Timorese judges, prosecutors and public defenders have graduated from the LTC and Legal Training Centre graduates now comprise the backbone of the country’s justice system. This is a remarkable achievement given that in 1999, there was not a single Timorese judge, prosecutor or public defender in the country.
“During my training [at the LTC] we were taught how to deal with such cases,” he said.
“Today’s verdict sends a message to the people of the country that burning and destroying houses is a very serious case and [this type of behavior] has to be stopped,” he said.
Today if you pass through the village of Galitas you can see the houses which were rebuilt after the clashes of August 2011. Children wave and smile throughout the length of village. Peace has been restored to this remote community in the southwest part of Timor-Leste, thanks in part to an impartial and transparent state justice system.
Donors: UNDP, Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (BCPR), Norway, Portugal, Swedish International Development Association (SIDA), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT).