Covering events from January - December 2003

Limited progress was made in developing a legal framework that would protect human rights and strengthen the nascent judiciary, police force and other key institutions. In this context, human rights could not be guaranteed, including the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time. Allegations of excessive use of force, misuse of firearms and other violations by the police were not always adequately or consistently addressed. The findings of a UN police investigation into two fatal shootings, allegedly by the police, in late 2002, was made public; no one was held to account for the killings.


2003 marked the first full year of independence for Timor-Leste. Building and strengthening new institutions and developing policy in all areas continued to present a considerable challenge to the new nation. The UN peace-keeping mission, the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET), continued to assist in the development of the National Police Service of Timor-Leste (PNTL) and the provision of interim law enforcement.

Human rights law

In April Timor-Leste acceded to a number of core international human rights treaties and instruments, including those relating to economic, social and cultural rights, the rights of women and children, and protection against torture.

Some progress was made in drafting national legislation on human rights, such as the law establishing an Office of the Provedor for Human Rights to provide oversight of government activities, the police and military, and the prison service. The Provedor's Office had not been set up by the end of the year.

However, some new laws were not fully consistent with the Constitution or with international human rights standards. The Immigration and Asylum Law was adopted by Parliament in September despite a Court of Appeal decision that provisions restricting the rights to freedom of assembly and association were unconstitutional. It had not been promulgated by the President by the end of 2003.

Justice system

Weaknesses within the justice system, particularly lack of human resources, training and oversight of officials, continued to undermine the rule of law, security and human rights. The Court of Appeal began sitting in July for the first time in 18 months. Of the four courts of first instance, only one functioned regularly. Women and children faced particular difficulties in accessing the formal justice system. Police and prosecutors frequently referred criminal cases, including of assault and rape, to "traditional" or alternative justice mechanisms.

Suspects were held in pre-trial detention for extended periods, often for minor offences. In the first week of December at least one third of the 223 pre-trial detainees were held illegally after their detention orders had expired. Officials exceeded their authority and investigating judges failed to exercise their role in protecting detainees' rights. Legal representation for detainees remained severely limited.

  • Some 90 people, including women and children, were arrested by the armed forces after five people were killed in an armed attack on civilians in Ermera District in January. Many of those arrested were thought to have no connection with the attack, but were singled out because of their membership of a religious sect. Thirty-nine people who were subsequently transferred to prison custody were held illegally, initially without detention orders and later with orders issued by a prosecutor, not a judge as required by law. All were held beyond the legal limit of 72 hours before being brought before a judge. The detainees did not have access to legal representation until they first appeared in court.
  • Carlos Ena, who was charged with two counts of crimes against humanity, including in connection with two murders in 1999, was released in September after 17 months in pre-trial detention. The Court of Appeal ruled his detention illegal because pre-trial detention should not exceed six months, except in exceptional circumstances not present in this case.


The UN retained executive control of the police but had transferred command for all 13 districts to the PNTL by the end of 2003. The absence of a legal and procedural framework, inadequate training and lack of oversight hampered the PNTL's development. Officers misused firearms in a number of incidents and were alleged to have assaulted suspects on more than 20 occasions.

Efforts to improve accountability resulted in the dismissal of several police officers. In one case, an officer was dismissed after beating and breaking the arm of an armed forces officer detained for assaulting him a few days earlier. However, investigations into, and sanctions for, police misconduct were generally not consistent or transparent.

A UN police investigation into the fatal shooting of two people, allegedly by police, in disturbances in the capital, Dili, on 4 December 2002 failed to identify those directly responsible. No one was held to account for the fatal shooting of another person, also allegedly by the police, one month earlier in the town of Baucau.

Past human rights violations

By December, indictments had been served against 369 individuals for serious crimes, including crimes against humanity, in connection with the independence ballot in 1999. Among those indicted were 281 people residing in Indonesia, including senior Indonesian military officials. Indonesia refused to transfer suspects for trial to Timor-Leste (see Indonesia entry).

Human rights violations during and immediately before the Indonesian invasion in 1975 were the subject of an ongoing inquiry by the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.

AI country visits

AI delegates visited Timor-Leste in October to facilitate a workshop for human rights activists and PNTL officers on "Civil society and the police working together to protect human rights".

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