Subject: RA: East Timor's Legal System in Crisis

Radio Australia December 19, 2002 -transcript-

EAST TIMOR : Legal system in crisis

The United Nations and legal workers in East Timor have accused the international community, including Australia, of failing to offer continuing support to the country's reconstruction. More than six months after independence, there is broad agreement that the justice system is in crisis. Some observers are linking riots in Dili earlier this month to rising frustration, in a community still waiting for the promised peace that was to have come with hard-won independence.

Presenter/Interviewer: Sonya De Masi

Speakers: Patrick Burgess; Head of Human Rights Unit, United Nations Mission in Support of East Timor (UNMISET), Charles Scheiner; East Timor Institute for Reconstruction, Monitoring and Analysis, La'o Hamutuk, Nelson Belo; Outreach Co-ordinator, Judicial System Monitoring Program, Maria Netersia Gusmao Pereira, Judge, Dili District Court

SCHEINER: We would say that the international commmunity has not met its responsibility, both in terms of providing the support and expertise and administrative work to make the judicial system function better. Hopefully the result of disturbances last week, is that the international donor community, and I include of course Australia, needs to look at the fact they need to continue to support East Timor.

DE MASI: Charles Scheiner, from the East Timor Institute for Reconstruction, Monitoring and Analysis, La'o Hamutuk, is not alone in linking the Dili riots earlier this month with the slow pace of reconstruction.

For some in East Timor, the wheels of justice are turning very slowly.

There are 47 cases pending appeal after trial in the lower court.

But there isn't a Court of Appeal because the judges haven't been appointed.

Some of those convicted have reportedly been waiting in jail for more than two years, in violation of international human rights standards.

Patrick Burgess is the head of the Human Rights Unit at the United Nations Mission in Support fo East Timor, in Dili.

BURGESS: Certainly I think it's completely unacceptable for an Apellate Court not to be staffed and it's my understanding that administrative problems have failed to produce people who the government feels acceptable to be appointed. And people who have been convicted are unable to appeal, adn that includes crimes against humanity trials that have already been completed. I don't have any explanation other than that the people have been put forward at this stage have been found to be unacceptable by the government.

DE MASI: Most East Timorese are unable to afford legal representation, and government-run legal aid is still in its early stages of development.

There's also a massive shortage of experienced legal professionals and no lawyers with court experience.

BURGESS: It is hard to find the right people to help. In East Timor all the young judges, lawyers, prosecutors, public defenders were educated in Indonesia. They speak Indonesian. All the international assistance sought, most were people who couldn't communicate with their East Timorese counterparts. We had to use interpreters, the law is so technical, the interpretation is not accurate. The East Timorese government keen to impose the decision that's been made here to use Portuguese as national language, but the lawyers don't speak Portuguese.

DE MASI: Nelson Belo, from East Timor's Judicial System Monitoring Program says local people who come into contact with the court system can often not even make themselves understood.

BELO: East Timorese speak in Tetum, and some ordinary people who've committed crimes or witnesses, they come from the countryside, they cannot speak Tetum, they speak their local language, and there are no interpreters. So it's really hard for the court to function in a proper way.

DE MASI: Add to this a pastiche of international, East Timorese and Indonesian law, and UN regulations, and Nelson Belo says it's clear why the entire system is failing.

Patrick Burgess, from the UN's Human Rights Unit says these shortfalls are not the only factors in undermining trust in the legal system.

There's also a lack of progress in prosecuting crimes against humanity from the post-election violcence in 1999.

BURGESS: The East Timorese people can see very clearly the Indonesian military who they feel were responsible for that violence, in fact they know them personally. They see the trials in Jakarta having failed to produce a single successful prosecution of military personnell, the international community backing away from pushing for stronger answers from the Jakarta tribunals, and they're very very disappointed about that.

DE MASI: Closer to home, confidence was further damaged when the East Timor government refused to enforce a court ruling, casting doubt on the separation of powers.

The decision was untimately upheld, but not before a lawyers strike and a dangerous precedent of goverment interference in the judicial system.

Maria Natersia Gusmao Pereira is a judge on the Serious Crimes Special Panel of the Dili District Court, that hears cases from the post-independence ballot violence.

She says the government and the community must take ownership of the judicial system and some responsibility for its success.

GUSMAO PEREIRA: I believe that my people, my community, they trust us. They trust us to be independent, impartial in our work. If everybody in this government and in this country has the good will to support the courts, I think there'll be no crisis in the future.

DE MASI: Meanwhile, the United Nations' Patrick Burgess says that future has been made more tenuous by the failure of the international community to follow through on its commitment to help East Timor rebuild.

He says assistance is needed not just in the short term, but for as long as it takes.

BURGESS: Recruiting people, finding the right people, the right buildings, there were no law books, there were no experienced personnel, no vehicles, there wasn't a computer. The judges used to have meetings sitting on the floor, scribbling on pieces of paper. There's a long, long way to go but the entire future of the country rests, in my opinion, on whether the justice system is effective and functioning.

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