Taking the court to the people
Ainaro – In a makeshift courtroom in the Ministry of Agriculture building in Ainaro town, Judge Jose Maria de Araujo is explaining the meaning of suspended sentence to defendant, Jose de Jesus. (Lee versaun Tetum iha ne'e)
The facts of de Jesus’ case are grim. On New Year’s Eve 2009, de Jesus, a subsistence farmer, returned to his house after working all day in the fields and asked his wife for his dinner. She replied that they had no rice in the house. He flew into a rage and went to strike his wife, who was holding their two-month old son. She dodged, and the blow caught the child on the head, causing a head injury which killed him.
While Prosecutor Zelia Trindade had asked for a sentence of four years, the judge handed down a suspended sentence of three years, in light of the fact that the defendant was the breadwinner for his wife and other three children. If de Jesus was sent to prison, Judge Araujo said he feared the family would be destitute.
But before dismissing the case, Judge Araujo read de Jesus the riot act.
“I don’t want to hear that you’ve walked out of this court room and told people the court let you off! This is not what is happening here,” he said.
- The mobile court pilot is designed to overcome infrastructure problems like poor roads and a lack of transport, which make it difficult for defendants, witnesses and victims to get to courts.
- Plans to implement a more comprehensive mobile justice programme are being discussed with the Ministry of Justice’s Council of Coordination and donors.
Judge Araujo told de Jesus that if any further criminal charges were laid against him in the next three years, the suspended sentence would be re-activated and he would serve three years in prison as well as any subsequent sentence.
“The next three years is a chance for you to rehabilitate yourself,” he said.
The defendant sat stock still in his seat below the judge, only nodding his head occasionally.
His case was one of several processed by Suai District Court during two-days of pilot mobile court hearings in Ainaro, held 24-25 February.
An assault case involving two female defendants and a female victim was settled out of court, with the participation of the Public Defender Marcal Mascarenhas and the Prosecutor Trindade, when the victim said she was willing to reconcile.
Another case – a charge of harassment – was also settled out of court. The victim withdrew the charges after an intense mediation session, conducted between the prosecutor, the public defender, witness and victim.
The hearings, while small in number, were significant in that few people in Ainaro would have ever set foot inside a court.
From Ainaro, it is a three-hour to the nearest court in Suai; or a six-hour drive to Dili, the administrative centre of Timor-Leste’s formal justice system, down roads which are barely passable at some points.
The mobile court initiative is intended to overcome some of the infrastructure problems which make it so difficult to get defendants, witnesses and victims from remote areas like Ainaro to court.
Commencing the hearing for de Jesus’ case, Judge Araujo said support from UNDP’s Justice System Program (JSP) and AusAID’s Justice Facility enabled the court to travel to Ainaro.
“This is a chance for the [Ainaro] community to see the role of justice sector actors and for the community to learn about the justice system – and [hopefully] to also lessen the number of crimes which are committed in this community,” he said.
Facility manager with the Justice Facility, Craig Ewers said the mobile court pilot is part of a more comprehensive mobile justice plan, which includes an important role for public defenders in bringing forward justice demand and refinements to initial mobile court hearings.
After the current pilot concludes, UNDP and the Justice Facility will present the detailed mobile justice project plan to Timor-Leste’s justice sector Council of Coordination for final approval.
UNDP senior justice advisor, Maria Bermudez said the current mobile justice pilot serves two purposes.
“It increases citizen’s knowledge about the justice system, while protecting their rights to access justice; and it helps the justice institutions reach places where, due to logistical or geographical reasons, people cannot access the formal justice system,” she said.