Foreign judges fired for exposing East Timor corruption

(Originally published by Equal Times)
Translations: French | Spanish

The Prime Minister of Timor Leste is coming under mounting international pressure from human rights organisations and legal bodies over his decision to expel foreign judges and prosecutors from the country.

On October 24, Timor-Leste's Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, persuaded Parliament to fire seven international judges and prosecutors who he alleged had caused the country to lose a tax evasion case brought against US Company ConocoPhillips which was contracted to export oil and gas. 

However, a fresh report by the Northern Territory Bar Association (NTBA) – based in Australia - claims that the judges may have been expelled out of fear that they might otherwise have brought corruption charges against members of the Timorese Government.

Alistair Wyvill SC, author of the report, told Equal Times: “The precise nature of the proceedings against members of the Government is not clear. However, it is clear that there are proceedings on foot in Timor Leste courts against members of the Government or which otherwise appear to concern them.”

Timor Leste gained independence from Indonesia in 2002 after decades of US-backed Indonesian occupation during which the UN estimates around 100,000 Timorese lost their lives.

Since then the country has relied on support from the international community to build a competent and independent judiciary. However, after speaking to government advisers and local lawyers in Dili, the Timorese capital, Wyvill claims the expulsions have left the legal system severely weakened.

“Whilst the judicial system in Timor Leste is not perfect, its development is best advanced by building on its strengths including its demonstrated capacity to act independently of Government.

“The recent actions of the Timor Leste Government run the grave risk of undermining rather than promoting that independence and destroying the progress which has been made since independence.”

In November a senior Portuguese judge who was expelled from Timor Leste, told independent journalist Ted Mcdonnell that the government’s actions were motivated by a desire to cover up corruption:

“They do not want to abide by the judicial decisions especially when it comes to oil tax assessments and corruption trials. The government…is tearing up its own constitution. The timing of the sackings need to be looked at by the international judiciary and other democratic governments.”

The latest report from NTBA comes amid fresh calls from human rights organisations for Timor Leste’s government to reverse its decision. Last week The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) – a US based organisation - reiterated Wyvill’s concerns and described the impact of the expulsions on the Timorese judiciary.

Timor-Leste's court system is severely limited. Many trials have had to be restarted, people languish in jail waiting for their trials and victims of crimes are unable to see justice done. Training of new Timorese judges and lawyers is largely curtailed, investigations into corruption and other crimes are slowed, and a message has been sent to everyone in the judicial system - Timorese and foreign - that they should think twice before displeasing high officials.”

This followed a statement in November from the UN special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, who urged the Timorese authorities to reconsider their decision.

“The resolutions represent a serious interference in the independence of the judiciary,” said Knaul. “I am troubled that the decision may have been taken in retaliation for court judgments which displeased members of the Government and the Parliament.”

Concerns have also been raised by Amnesty International over the adverse impact the expulsions are likely to have on efforts to prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence against women and children.

"Cases being re-tried include cases of domestic violence and sexual assault, which make up the vast majority of cases before Timor-Leste's courts. Victims - mainly women and children - may be subjected to further traumatization and victimization if required to testify again in new court cases," Amnesty said.