Written laws are like spiders’ webs; they will catch, it is true, the weak and poor, but would be torn in pieces by the rich and powerful.

— Anarchis, 6th century B.C.

‘How can we talk of human rights in East Timor? Respect for human rights requires the proper context and we do not have that.”

Thus spoke Joaquim da Fonseca, a thirtysomething with piercing eyes, long hair pulled back above his strikingly angular face and the slight frame of an ascetic. He has the air of a poet, speaks enigmatically like a philosopher and works as the human-rights adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office in East Timor’s capital of Dili, where he has been learning the political ropes since he accepted the post last summer.

Leaning back in his chair, Fonseca observed that his transition from being an NGO activist to a government actor had been frustrating — and it is clear where he would rather be. But he also has a sense of duty, and so he finds himself in the corridors of power, looking in.

Fonseca admits to having felt more influential as an outside critic, from where there are many channels to exercise influence, than as a government insider constrained in what he can say and isolated by his lack of political ties. He also rues the weakness of his office in the face of other ministries asserting their competing agendas and claims on the limited resources available.

Political manipulation

Moreover, in trying to promote greater attention to human-rights issues at Cabinet meetings, he confesses frustration at hearing “the echo of one hand clapping.”

Blatant political manipulation of the justice system discredits it in the public’s eyes. Fonseca laments that, saying, “Equality before the law is not fully observed. Those with political importance are given privileged treatment.”

And so a jaded public grows more jaded, hoping for a justice that does not come.

Fonseca describes the high-profile case of former Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato as a “golden opportunity” for the government to restore the credibility of the judicial system. “If the ruling class can convict one of its own, it would go a long way in reassuring the people that justice is not only for the poor and powerless,” he said. However, the case was postponed in November under dubious circumstances, fueling skepticism and rumors. The proceedings against Lobato concerning his role in transferring weapons to a hit squad resumed earlier this year.

Fonseca, like everyone else in Dili, seemed to expect that Lobato’s alleged co-conspirator, ousted Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, would not be prosecuted. Alas, in the court of public opinion, Alkatiri had been found guilty, so the justice system received yet another black eye by exonerating him in early February.

He says that “the number-one human-rights problem affecting East Timor is the lack of justice and accountability. It is so serious that it weakens public administration.” There is no deterrent to crime and so it spirals out of control because “the culture of impunity has entered people’s consciousness.”

Fonseca complains that there is no sense of urgency. Parliament, he says, has shown that it is more concerned with increasing its own members’ pensions than in addressing the severe human-rights problems in East Timor, exhibiting a selfishness that “smears the reputation of democracy.”

Backlog of cases

The problem is that the process of establishing a judicial system from scratch is being overtaken by events, and is burdened with a growing backlog of cases. The court system provides no redress to victims, and it thus has a long uphill battle to regain public trust. He admits that detainees are poorly treated and often languish in prison waiting for a trial date that never comes. The routine denial of lawyer visits and due process are also breaches of their constitutional rights. In addition, police frequently abuse their powers of detention.

Fonseca asserts that the breakdown of law and order in 2006, the prevalence of vigilante justice and the escalation of gang violence are all symptomatic of a failed judicial system. “Time is running out,” he says, “and the government has to give more than lip service to justice and human rights.”

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