Subject: Analysis: E.Timor: Investigators struggle with criminal lack of resources

South China Morning Post Tuesday, November 14, 2000


Investigators struggle with criminal lack of resources

Photo: Frisked: Australian troops arrest pro-Jakarta militiamen belonging to groups suspected of crimes against humanity in East Timor. Reuters photo


As East Timor descended into violence last year following the United Nations-sponsored vote on independence, groups of East Timorese militia - backed by the Indonesian military - conducted a rampage, murdering an estimated 1,000 people and forcibly deporting about 250,000 to Indonesia.

When international troops restored order and the UN administration took over, 28-year-old Joao Bosco, from the coastal town of Liquica, was accused of murdering a man in September last year as a member of the notorious militia Besi Merah Putih (Red and White Iron).

Like many suspected militia he was taken into custody in the UN-administered jail in Dili while a case was prepared against him. But when prosecutors applied to extend his period of detention, the Court of Appeal decided in October that Joao Bosco should be released due to a lack of evidence.

The court ruled that although there was evidence to support Joao Bosco's involvement in crimes against humanity, this had not been properly presented in the form of statements from the accused, witnesses or experts.

The case of Joao Bosco highlights the difficulty that the UN-run Serious Crimes Unit has in bringing crimes against humanity to trial in East Timor.

Underfunded and without even the most basic resources, the unit is facing an uphill struggle to prepare cases against 54 suspected militia already in detention and about 400 case files in total. It is a situation that has led many who work for the unit to question whether there is a serious political will to see those responsible for last year's atrocities brought to justice.

"The majority of staff came here on the understanding that they would be investigating serious crimes to prosecute those responsible for attacks last year," says the Deputy Chief of Investigations, Barry Gibson, who is a British police officer. "While we accept there is always going to be competing interests for resources, we are surprised that we have been here for six months and still, on a daily basis, we are fighting for basic equipment in order to function."

The investigation into crimes against humanity in East Timor was started by the Australian-led multinational force, Interfet, which arrived in September last year to restore order. Although initially criticised for destroying evidence because of a lack of forensic facilities, Interfet did begin to put together information on crimes against humanity and exhume massacre sites.

In May this year, the Serious Crimes Unit was set up to take over the task of investigating crimes against humanity - a task which had fallen to regular UN civilian police when Interfet was replaced by UN peacekeepers in February. With a team of 30, comprising civilian police, international investigators and two prosecutors, the unit is now responsible for all serious crimes throughout the island.

But those who work on the team say they have been severely hampered by a lack of resources. The team has been provided with only six UN vehicles to cover the island, two of which have been out of service for months. Officers complain about having to buy their own transport, either providing themselves with motorbikes or hiring taxis.

Until recently the team was without computers and still has no Internet access - important in gathering press reports of last year's violence. In conducting forensic investigations, one team member complained at having to spend US$40 (about HK$312) of his own money to buy a kettle large enough to boil bones in the mortuary. Even basic equipment, such as padlocks to secure evidence, has to be bought by staff out of their own pockets.

"I first came in May as part of the exhumation team," says Mr Gibson, who has previously worked in Bosnia investigating human rights abuses. "At that time there were four Australian soldiers conducting the investigations. But when they left in June they took all their equipment with them and we've had to beg, steal and borrow anything we can to ensure we finish the work."

This lack of funding has directly contributed to the release of suspects like Joao Bosco from detention. Team members say that, if properly resourced, it would not be difficult to prepare cases against suspects. But the current situation means the process of gathering evidence is painfully slow.

"A couple of months ago we had 74 suspects in detention, now we have 54. Some were let out on probation but others we've had to let go for lack of evidence," says one team member.

The situation in the unit has improved recently because of funding from the US State Department, which has been channelled into the Serious Crimes Unit through the American aid body US AID; US$155,000 has been provided to buy six additional vehicles, 10 computers and one floor safe for the unit.

The UN administration in East Timor says that the lack of funds and resources for the unit is not unusual.

"Because of the logistical problems in working here due to the massive destruction of infrastructure, the difficulties experienced by the Serious Crimes Unit are felt by other sectors of the mission," says spokeswoman Barbara Reis.

Although team members say they recognise that UN bureaucracy means funds are slow in arriving, they are beginning to question whether the UN is sincerely behind their efforts to conduct investigations. It is a question they will be putting to the UN Security Council delegation which is arriving in East Timor this weekend.

"I would like to ask them if they are satisfied that we have put all our efforts into concentrating on five priority cases because we don't have the facilities to deal with other cases, such as the murder of UN staff last year, which are equally as important," says one team member.

East Timor will establish a Reconciliation Commission next month to deal with the issue of how to rehabilitate militia into society. Preparatory team member Maria Olandina Caeiro says that a reliable court system to deal with the most serious militia crimes is essential in maintaining peace.

"With serious crimes, such as murder or mass destruction, the militia are sent to Dili to be tried. It is absolutely necessary to see that justice is done."

The Serious Crimes Unit is optimistic that with the right funding and resources, achieving this justice will not be difficult. But until they are able to function effectively, there are fears that bringing reconciliation to East Timor will be a slow and difficult process.

"It is human nature," says Barry Gibson. "If you get away with something once, you will probably do it again. This is why our work here is so important."

Joanna Jolly is a Dili-based journalist

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