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East Timor: New Law Aims to Stifle Political Dissent

President Gusmao Should Veto Bill Threatening Free Expression and Assembly

(London) - A law regulating demonstrations and assemblies passed by East Timor’s parliament violates basic rights to free expression and assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. President Xanana Gusmao should refuse to sign this law.

The Timorese parliament passed the law, known as the Law on Freedom, Assembly and Demonstration, in early December. Under Timorese law, President Gusmao has 30 days to sign or veto the law.

Human Rights Watch expressed particular concern with Section 5 of the law, which includes prohibitions on “demonstrations with the intent of questioning constitutional order” and “demonstrations whose objective constitutes contempt of the good reputation and respect due to the Head of State and other officeholders of the State institutions.”

Human Rights Watch said that such provisions are clearly aimed at insulating public officials from criticism. By limiting the rights of individuals and groups to free expression and assembly, these provisions violate both international law and the East Timorese constitution. The broadly worded law could be used arbitrarily to crack down on political opposition and dissenters and be used to restrict lawful activities by political parties and nongovernmental organizations.

The law also introduces a prior-notification requirement for demonstrations despite a provision in the constitution that allows an unfettered right to hold assemblies “without a need for prior authorization.”

“This law threatening fundamental freedoms presents a critical test of leadership for Xanana Gusmao,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Either he can show that he is the leader of all Timorese by vetoing the law, or simply serve as a champion of the new ruling political class by signing it.”

Human Rights Watch noted that several Timorese nongovernmental organizations, including Yayasan HAK and the Judicial Systems Monitoring Project, argued against the passage of the law and had made substantive comments and suggestions on the proposed bill prior to the parliamentary debate and vote. Aside from one small amendment, none of their concerns were addressed.

Human Rights Watch urged President Gusmao to take note of civil society concerns and veto the law.

“It’s shocking that Timorese political leaders who suffered brutal repression under occupation would now adopt a law that tramples fundamental freedoms,” said Adams. “Having mobilized support for independence with human rights arguments, East Timor’s political leaders should consider whether such a law is consistent with the ideals they have espoused for so many years.”

Human Rights Watch noted that East Timor is currently drafting its first report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee on implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which East Timor ratified in June 2003. Human Rights Watch said the new law violates East Timor’s obligations to protect the right to free expression under Article 19 of the Covenant, which guarantees the right of everyone to freedom of expression and allows restrictions of expression only in limited circumstances, and the right of peaceful assembly under Article 21.

The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to–—international standards drafted by experts in human rights law in 1995 and endorsed by the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression—provide that “No one may be punished for criticizing or insulting the nation, the state or its symbols, the government, its agencies, or public officials.”

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