Timor-Leste: Convictions boost state justice system

courtroom defendants
Defendants, in blue, in the courtroom on the day of the verdict. (Photo: Slava Mysak/UNDP Timor-Leste)

Sitting on the verandah of his home, Camilio dos Santos, the chief of the village of Galitas in East Timor reflects on how conflicts used to be resolved in Timor-Leste.

“Before independence we relied only on traditional justice to resolve any disputes in communities. It is good that now we have our own state justice system which we can trust,” he says.

Highlights

  • UNDP has been working to strengthen Timor-Leste’s justice sector since 2003, supporting the Ministry of Justice, the Legal Training Centre (LTC), the Office of the Prosecutor General and the Public Defender’s Office.
  • Since 2007, 51 Timorese judges, prosecutors and public defenders have graduated from the LTC.
  • UNDP has also supported the decentralization of legal services. Judges, prosecutors, public defenders and support staff are now deployed full time in each of the country’s four district jurisdictions.

Memories of a 2011 conflict between local youths are still fresh in his mind, when two rival groups went on a rampage which razed Galitas to the ground, burning 57 houses.

Fighting, rioting and harassment of local residents went on for two days before the National Police was able to restore law and order. The Simu Malu (coming back together), a traditional peace-building dialogue vital to restore stability and social cohesion in the communities,  took place a couple of months afterwards but did not carry punishment for the perpetrators or retribution for the victims.

In January 2013, though, the perpetrators were convicted by the Court and ordered to pay compensation to all Galitas residents whose houses had been burnt.

“This verdict sends a message to the people of the country that burning and destroying houses is a very serious case and [this type of behavior] has to be stopped,” says Judge Alvaro Maria Freitas.

Like almost all Timorese judges currently on the bench, Judge Freitas is a graduate of the UNDP-supported Legal Training Centre (LTC). The Centre, which has received UNDP support since 2003, is Timor-Leste’s only postgraduate training institute for justice sector professionals.

The LTC provides two-and-a-half year postgraduate training programmes to Timorese judges, prosecutors and public defenders. Programme graduates are qualified to work in the country’s courts, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the Public Defender’s Office.

Since 2007, a total of 51Timorese judges, prosecutors and public defenders, including 13 women, have graduated from the LTC and comprise the backbone of the country’s justice system. In 1999, there was not a single Timorese judge, prosecutor or public defender in the country.

Supported by UNDP’s Justice System Programme (JSP), a mobile justice initiative is also bringing the formal justice system closer to rural citizens and communities.

Since 2010, 88 cases have been heard during 15 mobile justice sessions and plans to implement a more comprehensive mobile justice programme are being discussed with the Ministry of Justice’s Council of Coordination and donors.