Subject: SMH: Old European tongue brings chaos to E. Timor

Sydney Morning Herald

July 26, 2003

Old European tongue brings chaos to newest Asian nation

By Jill Jolliffe in Darwin

A ruling by East Timor's only Supreme Court judge that national law should be based on Portuguese, not Indonesian, law threatens to plunge the legal system into chaos.

The Portuguese-trained Claudio Ximenes, who took office last month, has ruled that because Indonesia's occupation was unlawful, the United Nations-drafted legal system adopted after independence was invalid.

Mr Ximenes is East Timor's highest legal authority and made his finding as part of a special panel of judges hearing appeals of convicted militiamen.

The East Timorese chief prosecutor, Longuinhos Monteiro, challenged the ruling on Thursday. He said it would render illegal all "decisions of the court in crimes against humanity, serious crimes or ordinary crimes" heard in the previous three years.

East Timor's Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, had hoped the appointment would solve Timor's legal woes, but described the decision as incompetent and unconstitutional.

In a verdict on the appeal of Armando dos Santos, a Timorese militia member convicted of killings in the April 1999 Liquica massacre, Mr Ximenes said last week that UN Regulation No. 1 of 1999 did not apply. It states that "the law in East Timor prior to 25 October 1999" - taken to mean Indonesian law - should provide the legal foundation for the new nation.

The appeals panel he leads, which also has a Portuguese and an East Timorese judge, has since issued similar rulings in three other cases, although the East Timorese member, Judge Jacinta Costa, dissented.

Young Timorese judges and lawyers are already struggling to cope with a logjammed court system and the difficulties of conducting cases in a mixture of Portuguese, Indonesian and local languages.

They face the prospect of having to retry all cases judged since 1999. The ruling also undermines the credibility of Dili-conducted trials for crimes against humanity, some of which have resulted in 33-year sentences.

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