Saturday, November 6, 2010

East Timor trading justice for stability

President Jose Ramos-Horta says forgiving the person who nearly killed him two years ago is about mercy and reconciliation, but critics say it weakens the justice system,.

GASTAO Salsinha, retired rebel and failed assassin, says it is probably politics that explain why he is free to roam Timor Leste’s cloud-covered hinterlands rather than languish in prison.

Salsinha was the most senior of 24 rebels convicted this year of trying to murder the president and the prime minister in twin attacks two years ago.
But even as a court in Dili, the capital, sentenced him in March to more than 10 years in prison, Salsinha, a former army lieutenant, looked forward to certain release.

President Jose Ramos-Horta, who was left bleeding and near death with gunshot wounds outside his home, had promised forgiveness.

In August, he delivered, commuting the sentences of the 23 rebels in custody.
The opposition, rights groups and the United Nations reacted with dismay, saying the decision undermined the rule of law.

Even Salsinha, sitting outside a relative’s home in the hilly western district of Ermera, said Ramos-Horta probably had overstepped his constitutional power to grant commutations.

“But because there’s been political intervention, anything can happen,” he said, smiling shyly.

To critics, the release of Salsinha and his men is the latest example of crime without punishment in Timor Leste.

Since his election in 2007, Ramos-Horta has drastically increased pardons and commutations, prompting criticism that he has undermined efforts to punish those responsible for crimes during Indonesia’s bloody 24-year occupation, as well as during instability since independence in 2002.

But for the government, and Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace laureate, the pardons are about mercy and reconciliation in Asia’s newest and poorest country.
With giant Indonesia just across the border, and local divisions still strong, there is another calculation, critics say: a blank slate can buy peace and stability.

According to the United Nations mission in Timor Leste, Ramos-Horta has issued 217 pardons or commutations since 2007.

His predecessor, Xanana Gusmao, issued 44 in the previous three years. Gusmao is now prime minister and was also a target of the 2008 attacks.
The litany of suffering in Timor Leste, a former Portuguese colony, is a long one.

As many as 180,000 people died after Indonesia’s 1975 invasion, including about 1,400 in militia violence surrounding an independence referendum in 1999.
Three of Ramos-Horta’s brothers and one sister were killed in the occupation.

Fighting between rival factions of the security forces, set off by the firing of 600 soldiers, killed at least 37 people and drove 150,000 from their homes in 2006, and spawned the rebel movement that shot Ramos-Horta.

In a casual interview as he strolled outside his office building in Dili, Ramos-Horta said that in the case of Salsinha’s men, forgiveness, and preventing a return to instability, trumped punitive justice.

They were victims of the breakdown in the political system, he said, a crisis not of their making and for which they should not be punished.

He said he rejected the argument “that if you forgive people who have been tried, who have faced the whole justice process, and who faced two, three years in prison, you foster a kind of impunity”.

“You can say that when you put that question to me, I laughed.”

The UN, however, is not laughing.

Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, in his report on Timor Leste to the Security Council last month, said the rebels’ commutations could endanger future investigations into war crimes and undermine “efforts to combat impunity”.

Particularly egregious, the UN said, was the arrest and release last year of Maternus Bere, a pro-Indonesian militia leader indicted by the UN-backed Serious Crimes Unit in the 1999 massacre of more than 30 people at a church in Suai.

Captured by the police after crossing over from Indonesia, Bere was released by government order.

Louis Gentile, the local representative of the UN high commissioner on human rights, said the government had succumbed to Indonesian pressure and violated its own criminal code.

The Timorese constitution grants the president the right to issue pardons and commutations “after consultation with the government”.

But critics said the Bere decision was illegal because he was released before trial, instead of being pardoned or having his sentence commuted afterward.

The decision led to a no-confidence motion in the government, which was defeated on party lines.

Ramos-Horta said the decision was made because Timor Leste had decided “to close a chapter” on the 1999 violence by signing off with Indonesia on a Commission of Truth and Friendship report two years ago.

That report acknowledged Indonesian blame for much of the violence but has been criticised for failing to revive calls for an international tribunal or bring to justice more than 300 war crimes suspects living freely in Indonesia.

But for Gentile, trading justice for stability may mean Timor Leste could get neither.

“If you look at examples from around the world, a lot of people would argue that forgiveness and reconciliation with no element of justice will leave many victims feeling that they need to take revenge or that their call for justice was not heard.
“They will bide their time to take justice into their own hands.”

The release of Salsinha and his men means no one is now in prison in connection with the 2006 crisis and subsequent rebellion.

Although those commutations were legal, rights advocates said Ramos-Horta’s actions weaken the justice system.Salsinha said he thought his release was a step towards helping heal the wounds of 2006. But, unlike reconciliation processes in other countries, his release required no admission of guilt.

He maintains that his group never intended to kill the country’s leaders and just wanted a “meeting” with Ramos-Horta.

If anyone should be punished, he said, it should be members of the political elite, whose squabbling set off the crisis.

“The officials are like Pontius Pilate; they’ve all washed their hands.
By AUBREY BELFORD The New Straits Times, Kuala Lumpur

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