(Dili) - The East Timorese government needs to urgently address the problem of police torture and ill-treatment of detainees before it becomes widespread, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Independent and internal accountability mechanisms need to be greatly strengthened to stop a slide into impunity for officials who commit abuses.
The 50-page report, “Tortured Beginnings: Police Violence and the Beginnings of Impunity in East Timor,” is based on dozens of interviews with witnesses and victims of police abuse in East Timor. It documents excessive force during arrests, torture and ill-treatment of detainees by the National Police of East Timor (PNTL). Several people interviewed had to be hospitalized because of the severity of their injuries.
“We were shocked to find so many credible accounts of torture and severe ill-treatment by police officers,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “East Timor won independence in part because of Indonesia’s horrific record here. Now some people are saying that the new police force is no better than the old one, and this should worry the government.”
One young man told Human Rights Watch what happened to him when he was arrested in his village, near the town of Maliana:
“I was arrested by the PNTL, and put in a cell for two days and two nights. I was continuously tortured, sprayed with pepper spray, beaten and drenched with water. They constantly threatened me, saying ‘if you oppose the police then you will know the consequence.’ Three police officers came into the cell, locked the door, took off their jackets, then hit me. They were all Maliana PNTL. They were the night guards, and were wearing PNTL uniforms. On the first night they beat me at around 1:00 a.m., on the second night they beat me around 3:00 a.m. Both nights were different people, but both times they were beating me.”
Police and other state institutions in East Timor also regularly fail to respond appropriately to incidents of police abuse. The main internal police oversight body, the Professional Ethics and Deontology Unit (PEDU), often fails to take cases of police abuse seriously, to follow up with complaints, or properly discipline the officers involved. Independent bodies that could take up cases of police abuse are ineffective and lack sufficient material or political support to succeed.
“East Timor’s leaders are ignoring police abuse when they should be taking urgent steps to end it,” said Adams. “The people of East Timor have the right to expect better treatment from their own police force.”
Human Rights Watch called on the East Timorese government to:
- Ensure through public measures and statements that there is a clear, unambiguous and consistent signal from the top that police use of torture, arbitrary detention, and excessive force will not be tolerated.
- Take swift and meaningful action against police officers who torture, arbitrarily detain, or use excessive force against the population, including appropriate disciplinary action against commanding officers who know or should know of such acts and who fail to take action to prevent and punish them.
- Strengthen oversight and disciplinary bodies by providing strong support for their work, penalizing officers who do not comply with their directives.
Human Rights Watch also called for international donors to express their concern about police torture to the government of East Timor; substantially increase support for independent monitoring of police violence and for agencies that can provide services for victims; and fund and plan for long-term strategies on capacity-building, training, and other support to the PNTL.
“This report should serve as a wake-up call to the government and donors,” said Adams. “This young country can avoid emulating its former colonial master, but only if concerted action is taken now.”
After a 1999 referendum on independence from Indonesia, the United Nations took over the administration of the territory. Indonesia left East Timor impoverished, with few functioning institutions. Establishing a new police force for East Timor was one of the priorities for the United Nations before sovereignty was passed to the new state in May 2002. Successive U.N. missions in East Timor were instructed and authorized to help enable the rapid development of a credible, professional and impartial police service.
Recruitment drives for the new East Timorese police service started in early 2000, and basic training commenced on March 27 that year under the auspices of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor. On August 10, 2001, the East Timor Police Service was officially established alongside U.N. Civilian Police (CivPol), later changing its name to the Timor-Leste Police Service, before finally adopting its current title of the Polícia Nacional de Timor-Leste (PNTL).
It was not until May 20, 2002, Independence Day, that an agreement was signed outlining the terms and timetable for CivPol to hand over full policing duties to the PNTL. The handover of policing duties for the final district, Dili, took place on December 10, 2003, when the PNTL assumed responsibility for general day-to-day policing for the whole country.