East Timor | Freedom House

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East Timor

East Timor

Freedom in the World 2010

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Internal security improved in 2009, but little was done to address the underlying causes of a period of political instability that began in 2006. Alleged perpetrators of a 2008 assassination attempt against Prime Minister Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao and President Jose Ramos Horta went on trial in July. In October, Gusmao’s government narrowly survived a no-confidence motion after officials released a former militia leader accused of human rights abuses without a court order. Also that month, the country held generally free and fair village council elections.

Portugal abandoned its colony of East Timor in 1975, and Indonesia invaded when the leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) declared independence later that year. East Timor became Indonesia’s 26th province in 1976. Over the next two decades, Fretilin’s armed wing, Falintil, waged a low-grade insurgency against the Indonesian army, which committed widespread human rights abuses as it consolidated control. Civil conflict and famine may have killed up to 180,000 Timorese during Indonesian rule.
International pressure on Indonesia mounted following the 1991 Dili massacre, in which Indonesian soldiers were captured on film killing more than 200 people. In 1999, 78.5 percent of the East Timorese electorate voted for independence in a referendum approved by Indonesian president B. J. Habibie. The Indonesian army’s scorched-earth response to the vote killed roughly 1,000 civilians, resulted in more than 250,000 refugees, and destroyed approximately 80 percent of East Timor’s buildings and infrastructure before an Australian-led multinational force restored order.
In 2001 East Timor elected a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution. Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao, a former head of Falintil and chairman of Fretilin until he broke from the party in 1988 to form a wider resistance coalition, won the presidency the following year. Independence was officially granted in May 2002. Fretilin, led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, won the country’s first local elections in 2004 and 2005.
In 2006, the firing of 600 soldiers, combined with frustration over corruption and high levels of unemployment, sparked widespread rioting and armed clashes with the police. The unrest led to numerous deaths and displaced 150,000 people. Australian troops were deployed to restore security, but instability continued, and Alkatiri was forced to resign in June amid allegations that he had formed a hit squad to kill off political opponents. While Alkatiri was not prosecuted, the interior minister at the time was convicted in 2007 of arming the hit squad and ultimately pardoned in 2008.
Jose Ramos Horta, who was appointed to replace Alkatiri, won a May 2007 presidential runoff election with 67 percent of the vote, defeating Fretilin’s Francisco Guterres. Outgoing president Gusmao launched a new party, the National Congress for Timorese Construction (CNRT), to contest the June legislative elections. Frentilin led with 21 of the 65 seats, but the CNRT, which won 18, joined smaller parties to form the Alliance of the Parliamentary Majority (AMP). The new coalition held 37 seats, and Ramos Horta invited it to form a government, with Gusmao as prime minister.
In February 2008, former army major Alfredo Reinado—who had escaped from prison after being arrested for involvement in the 2006 uprising—led a group of former soldiers in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Gusmao and Ramos Horta. Reinado was killed during the attack, and his comrades later surrendered to security forces. They went on trial in July 2009, and the proceedings were ongoing at year’s end.
Stability improved in 2009, but the conditions underlying the previous years’ crises continued to simmer. These included politicization of the civil service and security forces, conflict over land and property, and the broader legacy of 35 years of internecine conflict. While the last of 65 camps for internally displaced persons closed in July, an estimated 72 families remained wary of returning to their communities and stayed in four transitional shelters near the capital as of December.
In August the authorities captured Martenus Bere, an Indonesian citizen who had been indicted for his role as a militia leader in the 1999 violence, as he entered East Timor. However, the government later released him without a court order, and he returned to Indonesia in October. The release was ostensibly due to health concerns, but Gusmao and Ramos Horta acknowledged that it was a political concession to Indonesia Fretilin brought a no-confidence motion against the AMP government that month, but it failed, 25–39. Also in October, Fretilin claimed a major victory in village council elections, although council candidates are technically barred from representing political parties.

At the end of 2009, the total value of East Timor’s fund for oil and gas royalties was estimated at more than $4 billion, and the country has one of the highest aid-per-capita ratios in the world. Nevertheless, it remains the poorest country in Southeast Asia, with an unemployment rate of about 50 percent and more than 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

East Timor is an electoral democracy. Elections for the presidency and the unicameral Parliament held in 2007 were generally deemed free and fair, as were October 2009 local elections in 442 villages. The directly elected president is a largely symbolic figure, with formal powers limited to the right to veto legislation and make certain appointments. The leader of the majority party or coalition in the 65-seat, unicameral Parliament becomes the prime minister. Both the president and Parliament serve five-year terms, with the president eligible for up to two terms. Fretilin, now in opposition, remains the single largest political party, and personalities and old loyalties tied to the resistance movement of the 1970s influence political outcomes more than policy issues.
Voter frustration with corruption and nepotism was one reason for Fretilin’s relatively poor showing in the 2007 elections. Accusations of graft have continued under the AMP government. Over 5,200 cases were awaiting investigation as of June 2009, indicating that high-level corruption is not effectively prosecuted. Parliament in June 2009 voted to create an anticorruption commission, but the composition and powers of the body were still under discussion at year’s end. East Timor was ranked 146 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The free flow of information in East Timor is hampered primarily by poor infrastructure and scarce resources. An estimated 68 percent of Timorese are reached by the national broadcaster, Radio Timor-Leste, and a few community radio stations also operate. Since 2007, East Timor Television has been available via satellite beyond the Dili broadcast area. The country has two major daily newspapers and two major weekly papers. The daily Suara Timor Lorosae is generally considered to be pro-Fretilin, while the weekly Jornal Nacional Diaro is loosely affiliated with the CNRT. Less than 1 percent of the population has access to the internet. By March 2009, approximately 140,000 people had mobile-telephone subscriptions.
Journalists often feel intimidated and practice self-censorship. A new penal code promulgated in March 2009 excludes defamation as a criminal offense, and a widely criticized case against editor Jose Antonio Belo of the weekly Tempo Semanal was consequently dropped. Draft media laws publicized in March were criticized for several restrictive provisions, including a rule limiting the number of local radio stations to one per community and a requirement that journalists work for five years before becoming licensed professionals. The measures were under revision at year’s end.
East Timor is a secular state, but the Roman Catholic Church plays a central role; 98 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Church rules prohibit persons living under religious vows from holding political office. There are no significant threats to religious freedom or clashes involving the country’s Muslim and evangelical Christian minorities. Academic freedom is generally respected, though religious education is compulsory in schools.
Freedoms of association and assembly are constitutionally guaranteed, but a 2004 law regulates political gatherings and prohibits demonstrations aimed at “questioning constitutional order” or disparaging the reputations of the head of state and other government officials. The law requires that demonstrations and public protests be authorized in advance.
East Timor’s labor code, which is based on International Labor Organization standards, permits workers other than police and military personnel to form and join worker organizations. It also guarantees the rights to bargain collectively and to strike, although written notice must be given 10 days before a strike. Unionization rates are low due to high levels of unemployment and informal economic activity.
The country suffers broadly from weak rule of law, a prevailing culture of impunity, and flawed security forces. The fragile legal system has just 13 judges hearing cases in four district courts as well as a shortage of qualified public defenders. According to an October 2009 Independent Comprehensive Needs Assessment (ICNA) organized by the United Nations Integrated Mission In Timor-Leste (UNMIT), the courts are backlogged by approximately 300 civil cases and 1500 criminal cases. Due process rights are often restricted or denied, largely because of a lack of resources and personnel. Alternative methods of dispute resolution and customary law are widely used, though they lack enforcement mechanisms and have other significant shortcomings, including unequal treatment of women.
The government’s 2009 release without a court order of former pro-Indonesian militia leader Martenus Bere, who had been indicted by the UN Serious Crimes Unit in 2003 for alleged human rights violations in 1999, was widely decried as a violation of judicial independence and the rule of law. In August, Amnesty International called on the UN Security Council to establish an independent criminal tribunal for the country, but President Jose Ramos Horta stated on numerous occasions that East Timor would not pursue such a tribunal. He also said he would consider pardoning, in the interests of peace, some of the 28 defendants who went on trial in July 2009 for the 2008 attempt on his and the prime minister’s lives. The remarks were seen as another political intrusion on the judicial process. In December, the parliament adopted a resolution that empowers the parliamentary committee responsible for law and constitutional affairs to draft legislation that addresses the findings of reports by the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation (CAVR) and the Commission on Truth and Friendship (CTF). 
Internal security improved in 2009, though gang violence, sometimes directed by rival elites or fueled by land disputes, was still a problem. The UN mission began a phased transfer of policing responsibility to the national police in May. While approximately 1,579 UN police and military liaison officers remained in East Timor at year’s end, four of the thirteen districts had been transferred to the national police, as well as responsibility for police training, maritime security, and the police intelligence department. Neither the Timorese police nor the military are well trusted by the population, and relations between the two forces remain tense due to political rifts dating to the independence struggle.
A draft land law that was undergoing public consultation at the end of 2009 is expected to settle many long-standing disputes, but it was criticized for not explicitly guaranteeing community lands. There was also uncertainty as to who would participate in bodies responsible for ruling on land conflicts.
Equal rights for women are constitutionally guaranteed, but domestic violence remains a persistent problem. It is estimated that half of all women were victims of gender-based crimes in 2008, while only a marginal fraction of cases of abuse were reported to the police, often due to fears that jailing the abuser would result in loss of financial support for the family. Trafficking of women and children is reportedly on the rise, as is the sex trade. The penal code promulgated in 2009 criminalizes abortion except in cases that endanger the health of the mother. While women’s participation in government remains much lower than that of men, women hold three senior cabinet posts and 19 of 65 seats in Parliament.