East Timor | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

East Timor

East Timor

Freedom in the World 2012

2012 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


While the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) successfully transferred all policing responsibility to the national police force in March 2011, leaked internal UNMIT documents criticizing the Timorese government hastened calls for the end of the UN mission. In April, Deputy Minister José Luis Guterres formed a new political party, Frenti-Mudanca, a Fretilin reform party. A new civil code was approved in September, and an increase in the quota law for women’s political participation was passed in May, leading up to the 2012 national elections.

Portugal abandoned its colony of East Timor in 1975, and Indonesia invaded within days of the declaration of independence by the leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin). 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 reportedly killed between 100,000 and 250,000  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, produced 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 Gusmão—former commander-in-chief of Falintil and leader 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. The Fretilin party, led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, won the country’s first local elections in 2004 and 2005.

A political crisis in 2006 erupted into widespread rioting and armed clashes with the police, leading to numerous deaths and the displacement of an estimated 150,000 people. Alkatiri was forced to resign as prime minister in June 2006, and a United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) was established to help restore peace and increase police presence. José Ramos-Horta, who was appointed to replace Alkatiri, won the May 2007 presidential runoff election. Outgoing president Gusmão launched a new party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), to compete in June 2007 parliamentary elections. Fretilin led with 21 of the 65 seats, but the CNRT, which had captured 18, joined smaller parties to form the Alliance of the Parliamentary Majority (AMP), securing a total of 37 seats. Ramos-Horta invited the AMP to form a government, with Gusmão as prime minister.

The ruling AMP coalition continued to face criticism in 2011 due to the stalled implementation of recommendations from the truth commissions that had been established to investigate the violence surrounding East Timor’s 1999 referendum, and the human rights violations that occurred during the 25 years of Indonesian occupation. While the UNMIT peacekeeping mission mandate was extended by one year, UNMIT formally transferred all policing responsibility to the national police force (PNTL) in March. However, calls for the end of the UNMIT mission were accelerated following the leak in May of an unofficial, internal UNMIT document that accused Gusmão of consolidating power.

East Timor’s weak economy is fueled primarily by oil and gas revenues. In August 2011, the government approved amendments to the Petroleum Fund Law to allow for increased diversification in investments and to increase the rate of return; approximately 90 percent of Timor’s budget (outside of foreign aid) is drawn from the Petroleum Fund. Despite an oil fund balance valued at over $9.3 billion, East Timor remained the poorest country in Southeast Asia with more than 40 percent of the population living below the national poverty line. East Timor applied to join the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in March.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

East Timor is an electoral democracy. The 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections were generally deemed free and fair. 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. The president and members of Parliament serve five-year terms, with the president eligible for a maximum of two terms. In preparation for the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections, the National Election Commission approved legislation in December covering issues including campaigning, voting, and vote counting and tabulation.

Fretilin, now in opposition, remains the single largest political party. In April 2011, a former member of Fretilin, current deputy prime minister José Luis Guterres, formed a new party, Frenti-Mudanca, describing it as a Fretilin reform party.  

Voter frustration with corruption and nepotism has plagued both Fretilin and AMP governments. An anticorruption commission was created in 2009 with a broad mandate, except for powers of prosecution. In March 2011, the government launched a transparency website of government accounts. In May, Deputy Prime Minister for Social Issues José Luis Guterres was cleared of charges relating to corruption and abuse of power. The anticorruption commission submitted eight high profile cases related to public officials, including those involving two cabinet ministers, to the attorney general’s office for investigation in 2011; the cases were pending at year’s end. The country was ranked 143 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Journalists often practice self-censorship, and authorities regularly deny access to government information. The 2009 penal code decriminalized defamation, but it remains part of the civil code. A 2011 UNMIT study found that most people still rely on community leaders for information, followed by radio and television; an estimated 16 percent of the population did not access any form of media. The free flow of information remains hampered primarily by poor infrastructure and scarce resources. Radio has the greatest reach, with 63 percent of people listening on a monthly basis. The country has three major daily newspapers, some of which are loosely aligned with the ruling or opposition parties. Printing costs and illiteracy rates generally prevent the expansion of print media; only about 35 percent of the population has reported ever having read a newspaper. In 2011, an estimated 0.2 percent of the population had access to the internet.

East Timor is a secular state, though 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. However, 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.

Workers, other than police and military personnel, are permitted to form and join labor organizations, bargain collectively, and strike. In April 2011, the government approved a law governing the right of workers to strike, which reduced the time required for written notification prior to a strike from 10 days to 5 days. Unionization rates are low due to high levels of unemployment and informal economic activity.

The country suffers from weak rule of law and a prevailing culture of impunity. The understaffed court system hears cases in four district courts and one court of appeal. There is a considerable backlog, with approximately 4,600 criminal cases pending at the Office of the Prosecutor General at year’s end. Due process rights are often restricted or denied, owing largely to 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. In July 2011, the Dili District Court convicted a former militia member of murder as a crime against humanity for actions taken in Liquica in September of 1999. The defense filed an appeal, but the verdict was upheld. The convicted former militia member was not arrested, however, and remained at large at year’s end. In September, the government promulgated a new civil code, which will come into effect in March 2012; the government was criticized for limited public consultation on the code.

While there was a significant improvement in internal security in 2011, gang violence—sometimes directed by rival elites or fueled by land disputes—continued sporadically. As a result of several violent incidences between martial arts groups in late 2011 in Dili, the government in December initiated a one-year prohibition of martial arts groups and criminalized their activities. UNMIT completed the phased transfer of policing responsibility to the national police (PNTL) in March 2011, but the UN Security Council expressed concerns over the credibility of the PNTL. According to a report by the human rights group HAK Association, 99 instances of human rights violations were allegedly committed by PNTL members in 2011, and 9 by members of the Timorese Defense Force. In October, a new Commander of the Timorese Armed Forces was sworn in; Lere Anan Timur replaced Taur Matan Ruak, who is expected to run for president during the 2012 elections. A November 2011 International Crisis Group report noted a growing concern in the criteria for the determination of veteran status for those that fought in and worked for the resistance movement, citing expensive compensation programs and the political repercussions of formalizing their political and security roles.

The status and reintegration of the thousands of Timorese refugees who still remain in the Indonesian province of West Timor after fleeing the 1999 violence remained an unresolved issue in 2011. The Timorese government has long encouraged the return of the refugees, but concerns over access to property and other political rights, as well as the status of former militia members, continued to hinder their return.

Community property comprises approximately 90 percent of the land in East Timor. A 2010 report issued by the International Crisis Group warned that land rights are likely to become increasingly contentious in light of ambitious government development plans. In July and November 2011, the government approved laws establishing the legal framework and procedures by which to recognize ownership and grant registration titles for undisputed real estate property.

Equal rights for women are constitutionally guaranteed, but discrimination and gender inequality persists in practice and in traditional/customary law. Women hold approximately 30 percent of the seats in parliament. Amendments to the election laws in May 2011 increased the quota requiring one-third of candidates on party lists for parliamentary elections to be women. While a law against domestic violence was adopted in 2010, gender-based violence and domestic violence remain widespread. The 2009 penal code criminalizes abortion except in cases that endanger the health of the mother. East Timor remains a source and destination country for human trafficking into forced labor and prostitution.