Subject: SMH/E Timor: Long arm of the law badly overextended

Sydney Morning Herald Saturday, February 12, 2000

Long arm of the law badly overextended

By MARK DODD, Herald Correspondent, in Dili

East Timor's 10 newly appointed judges have every right to be dismayed about their working conditions - they don't even have a gavel between them.

There is no properly equipped court building, let alone law books, typewriters or computers, to help hear cases against the 42 people languishing in the United Nations detention centre in Dili. About 38 are facing trial for murders committed during the bloody army-backed militia violence that followed the August 30 referendum.

A Transitional Judicial Services Commission established on January 5 selected 10 East Timorese judges, including one woman, who will serve on a yet to be constituted criminal, civil and appeals court.

The judges were sworn in on January 7, and another 20 potential candidates have been identified as eligible for appointment but training of judges, prosecutors and lawyers remains a priority.

East Timor's judiciary also will be hard-pressed dealing with an assortment of lesser crimes during the coming months - crimes that will test the ability and competence of the new UN Civilian Police (Civpol).

After about a quarter of a century of Indonesian-imposed repression, East Timor under UN transitional authority now finds itself being buffeted by an assortment of law and order problems.

Mr Roberto Cabral, an East Timorese psychologist working with the Catholic aid organisation, Caritas, said there was a big increase in the number of victims of militia violence coming forward for trauma counselling.

Many of the victims were young men who, unable to come to terms with losing family and friends, had taken to drink, he said.

Incidents of urban crime also are on the rise.

The crime wave has been attributed to rising unemployment and frustration at the pace of reconstruction, especially among large sections of urban youth. The UN estimates at least 80 per cent of the population (750,000-800,000) is without "visible means of support."

Last month, the absence of Civpol led to members of a martial arts club intervening when violence flared in Dili's central market.

"If there is a perceived vacuum in law and order, someone will fill it and that is very serious," one senior UN official warned.

The UN's senior police officer in East Timor, Commissioner Carlos Lima from Portugal, says he his trying to boost the visible presence of Civpol units, including foot patrols, but is hampered by manpower problems and equipment shortages, especially radios.

"What we have here are small incidents like those which happen all over the world," he said.

Well, not quite. UN and East Timorese human rights officials are concerned at rising levels of vigilantism directed against refugees returning from West Timor, many suspected of having links to pro-Jakarta militia groups.

In the past 10 days, there have been four violent incidents in Liquicia, including one near fatal stabbing. Speaking on condition of anonymity, UN officials described similar violence in the mountain towns of Ermera and Aileu.

Summary justice meted out by locals against suspected militia members is almost a daily occurrence in Dili, and

land disputes are also becoming commonplace. Property owners are returning from camps in West Timor to find squatters have taken over their homes.

With Interfet now in an advanced stage of preparation to handover authority to the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), the understaffed Civpol will come under increasing pressure to maintain law and order.

Commissioner Lima said he has about 500 men and women under his command out of a projected force of 1,640. He expects a total of 632 police officers to be in East Timor by mid-February but total pledges to Civpol so far is only 900, well short of its authorised strength.

Back to February Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter V3.5.8, is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from