Covering events from January-December 2001

East Timor
Capital: Dili
Population: 0.8 million
Death penalty: abolitionist for all crimes

East Timor's transition to independence continued with the election of a Constituent Assembly, the appointment of an all-Timorese government and the drafting of a new Constitution. The first ruling against suspects on trial for crimes against humanity committed during 1999 was handed down in December. However, the newly established justice system remained fragile and was unable to respond fully to the demands placed upon it. The rule of law was undermined by the use of processes outside the official justice system, including traditional law, which did not always meet international standards, and there were indications that some individuals benefited from impunity. The incomplete legal and institutional framework also impacted on the rights to protection of vulnerable groups, including refugees returning from Indonesia, members of the Muslim and ethnic-Chinese communities, and women and children.


In a process which observers considered to have been free and fair, 16 political parties contested elections on 30 August for the 88-member Constituent Assembly. A "Second Transitional Government" was subsequently appointed by the UN Transitional Administrator and was supervised by a Council of Ministers, although overall authority for government remained with the UN Transitional Administrator.

The mandate of the UNTransitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET)was expected to be extended to 20 May 2002, the date set for East Timor's independence. A reduced UN presence after independence was endorsed by the UNSecurity Council although final plans had not been agreed.

The Constitution

The Constituent Assembly began deliberations on East Timor's draft Constitution, in a process which was scheduled to be completed in early 2002.

Criminal justice system

New regulations adopted by UNTAET on legal aid as well as the prison and police services signalled progress in establishing a legal framework to protect human rights. However, some important legislation had not been drafted, and other legislation dating from the occupation by Indonesia which fell short of international human rights standards had not been reviewed. Provisions in the UNTAET Regulation on the Transitional Rules of Criminal Procedure which did not conform to human rights standards were also not amended.

By the end of the year only one of East Timor's four district courts was fully functioning. Rulings were not always consistent with human rights standards. Lack of capacity and inexperience within the public defenders service meant that in some cases detainees did not have access to lawyers for weeks or months.

Judicial independence was threatened by direct interference in the working of the courts, including by political officials, and by incidents of physical threats against members of the judiciary. A code of ethics for the judiciary was drafted, but not yet adopted, and no effective, independent and impartial judicial overview mechanism had been established. Efforts to resolve the problem of unlawful detentions resulting from expired detention orders were only partially successful.

Lack of confidence in the formal criminal justice system contributed to a reliance on alternative, non-judicial mechanisms, including traditional law. Crimes such as rape and domestic violence were among those being resolved through such unregulated processes. Without guidelines or effective monitoring, such practices were applied inconsistently and vulnerable groups were at risk of discrimination and other human rights abuses.

Investigations and trials of past violations

By the end of the year, over 30 indictments had been issued by the UNTAET Serious Crimes Unit, responsible for the investigation and prosecution of cases relating to the 1999 violence. They included indictments for crimes against humanity. The first sentence in a serious crimes case was delivered on 25 January when a former militia member was sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment for murder. Hearings in the first crimes against humanity case began in July. The judgment, delivered in December, found 10 defendants guilty and they were sentenced to up to 33 years and four months in prison. One suspect, a member of Kopassus, Indonesia's Special Forces Command, was still at large in Indonesia. He was among a number of individuals indicted by the Serious Crimes Unit who were in Indonesia and who had not been transferred to East Timor for trial.

Despite some progress, problems within the Serious Crimes Unit, such as poor management and lack of experienced staff and resources, continued to impact on the speed and quality of its work as well as on relations with local human rights organizations. Capacity to hear serious crimes cases was increased in November with the addition of a second panel of judges, but some concerns remained about the fairness of the trials. The work of the Serious Crimes Unit was also hampered by lack of cooperation from Indonesia (see Indonesia entry).

A regulation establishing a national Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation was adopted in June. The selection process for Commissioners began in September.

Protection of vulnerable groups

Cases of assault, illegal detention and threats by unofficial security groups and others against refugees returning from Indonesia were reported during the year and were not always effectively addressed by the authorities.

The legal status of minority groups such as the Muslim and ethnic Chinese communities had not been resolved and they continued to be at risk of discrimination, including violent attacks. In Baucau, the mosque was destroyed during disturbances in March.

The legal and institutional framework to protect and promote the rights of women and children remained inadequate. High levels of domestic violence, lack of access by women to the criminal justice system and gender bias in court proceedings were yet to be adequately addressed.

AI country reports/visits


  • East Timor: Justice – past, present and future (AI Index: ASA 57/001/2001)

AI delegates visited East Timor in March.

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