Freedom in the World 2011

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East Timor (2011)

Capital: Dili

Population: 1,134,000

Political Rights Score: 3
Civil Liberties Score: 4
Status: Partly Free


In February 2010, two dozen defendants were sentenced to prison terms for their roles in the2008 assassination attempt against Prime Minister Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão and President José Ramos-Horta. However, in August, Ramos-Hortapardoned and commuted the sentences of 23 of those convicted, along with several others who had been convicted in connection with civil unrest in 2006. The ruling coalition continued to weaken throughout the year, with one deputy prime minister resigning in September and another facing corruption charges in October.


Portugal abandoned its colony of East Timor in 1975, and Indonesia invaded when the leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) declared independence. 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 up to 180,000 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, a former head and chairman of Falintil 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. Fretilin, 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 150,000 people. Alkatiri was forced to resign in June.José Ramos-Horta, who was appointed to replace him, won the May 2007 presidential runoff election. Outgoing president Gusmão launched a new party, the National Congress for Timorese Construction (CNRT), to contest the June legislativeelections. 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). The new coalition held 37 seats, and Ramos-Hortainvited it to form a government, with Gusmão as prime minister.

In 2008, former army major Alfredo Reinado was killed while leading a group of armed men in an unsuccessful attack against Gusmão and Ramos-Horta. Legal proceedings against the suspects, which were generally deemed fair and in conformity with human rights standards,concluded in March 2010 with the sentencing of 24 of the 28 defendants to between 9 and 16 years in prison for offenses ranging from the attempted murder of the head of statetothe illegal use of firearms. Whilean appeals court upheld the decision in June, in August President Ramos-Horta pardoned 23 of the convicted men.

The ruling AMP coalition continued to falter in 2010 amid ongoing corruption concerns. Deputy Prime Minister for State Administration Mário Carrascalão resigned in September following a series of public disagreements with Gusmão and after the cabinet removed his powers over government procurement. Deputy Prime Minister for Social Issues José Luis Guterres and Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa were indicted on corruption charges in October. A court later rejected the accusations against da Costa, while trial proceedings against Guterres had not begun by year’s end.

The country’s weak economy is fueled primarily by oil and gas revenue. In 2010, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) granted “compliance status” to East Timor, acknowledging that it had successfully undertaken public audits, published payments by companies to governments, and engaged in public consultation. However, despite oil reserves valued at over $6 billion, East Timor remained the poorest country in Southeast Asia, with an unemployment rate of about 50 percent and more than 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line. The country also has one of the highest aid-per-capita ratios in the world.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

East Timor is an electoral democracy. The 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections were generally deemed free and fair, as were the 2009 local elections. 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. Fretilin, now in opposition, remains the single largest political party. Political outcomes are influenced more by personalities and old loyalties tied to the 1970s resistance movement than by policy issues.
Voter frustration with corruption and nepotism has plagued both Fretilin and AMP governments. In a rare demonstration of multiparty support, Parliament in 2009 unanimously voted to create an anticorruption commission with a broad mandate, except for powers of prosecution. A commissioner was appointed in February 2010, and 10 commission investigators were appointed in November.The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) signed a $10.5 million threshold program with East Timor in September 2010, which will focus on addressing corruption concerns in addition to immunization services.The country was ranked 127 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Journalists often practice self-censorship, and authorities regularly deny access to government information. The 2009 penal code excludes defamation as a criminal offense, but it remains part of the civil code. The free flow of information is hampered primarily by poor infrastructure and scarce resources. An estimated 68 percent of Timorese are reached by the national radio broadcaster, East Timor Radio. Since 2007, East Timor Television has been available via satellite beyond the Dili broadcast area. The country has three major daily newspapers and three major weekly papers, some of which are loosely aligned with the ruling or opposition parties. Printing costs and illiteracy rates generally prevent the expansion of print media. In 2010, 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, though written notice must be given 10 days before a strike. 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, which relies in part on international personnel, has only 24 judges (three international), 20 prosecutors (seven international), and 18 public defenders (two international) who hear cases in four district courts and one court of appeal. There is a considerable backlog, with approximately 5,000 criminal cases pending at the Office of Prosecutor General as of December 2010. 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 August 2009, authorities captured Martenus Bere, an Indonesian citizen who had been indicted by the UN Serious Crimes Unit for alleged human rights violations during the independence-related violence of 1999. However, the Timorese government released him without a court order in a move widely decried as a violation of judicial independence and the rule of law. Ramos-Horta’s decision to commute the sentences of those convicted for the 2008 assassination attempts was also criticized as an example of ongoing impunity.
While there was a significant improvement in internal security in 2010, underlying tensions remained unresolved. Gang violence—sometimes directed by rival elites or fueled by land disputes—continued sporadically. The UN mission in the country began a phased transfer of policing responsibility to the national police (PNTL) in 2009, and by the end of year the PNTL had resumed primary policing in 10 of 13 districts. However, neither the Timorese police nor the military are well trusted by the population, and relations between the two forces remained poor due to political rifts dating back to the independence struggle. Security-sector reform is complicated by a lack of accountability and problems of internal discipline. A May 2010 report bytheCentre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) cited a “militarization” of the PNTL, and warned of paramilitary policing and a visible increase in PNTL weaponry since the 2006 crisis. However, some progress was made within the PNTL’s internal disciplinary mechanism, as the Ministry of Justice recorded initiating 291 disciplinary cases involving PNTL policemen between January and June 2010. At the end of 2010, approximately1,500 UN police and military liaison officers remained in East Timor.
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. A draft law focused on addressing land disputes remained under consideration at the end of 2010.
Equal rights for women are constitutionally guaranteed, but domestic violence remains a persistent problem. A law against domestic violence was adopted in May 2010, and in 2009 domestic violence was established as a public crime. Trafficking of women and children is reportedly on the rise, as is the sex trade. The 2009 penal code criminalizes abortion except in cases that endanger the health of the mother. Women hold just three senior cabinet posts and 19 of 65 seats in Parliament.