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I. Introduction

I think that if the police arrest people, they can’t beat them. You have to ask first if he is guilty, then arrest him, and then take him to the court in Dili. But because they [the police] have a bad attitude, they just arrest and straight away beat people. I think they should be fired, or arrested themselves.
—Carlito Gusmao, victim of police beating, Aldeia Tasmasak, Bobonaro1

Carlito Gusmao was arrested by the police after he refused to take part in the national census. He was accused of threatening the census takers with a knife when they visited his village. He told Human Rights Watch how uniformed police officers arrived at his house at about 9:30 in the morning and took him in a police car to Maliana district police station in the western region of East Timor.2 He was beaten as soon as he got out of the car and then put in a cell. While in the cell he said he witnessed police officers severely beating another detainee, using a bulletproof vest. That evening other police officers came into his cell and sprayed pepper spray into his eyes. He has not made a complaint about the abuse he alleges, for fear of retribution, and also because he believes nothing will come of it.3

Over the past two years police abuse has become one of East Timor’s most worrying human rights problems.  Police officers regularly use excessive force during arrests, and beat detainees once they are in custody. This behavior seems to have become so common that officers rarely try to hide their actions from the general public. Human Rights Watch experienced no shortage of cases to document wherever we went in East Timor.

One East Timorese activist working for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Dili that has been monitoring police violence in East Timor told Human Rights Watch:

Beatings during arrest are already prevalent. Why? Because of the attitude of the police that they are an institution that has to be respected. They do not accept the questioning of their role or authority. If I am a PNTL officer and say to you that you are guilty, you have to say, “I am ready to be guilty.” Beatings are already routine.4

Many of these abuses, as described to Human Rights Watch, rise to the level of torture. Mario Belo, a twenty-seven-year-old man recounted what happened after he was arrested in Mulia village, Baucau, for throwing rocks at some people he suspected of tampering with his fishing boat:

By the time I got to the prison it was about 7:00 p.m.; I think it was June 18. I was ready to answer [a question], but before I could answer [the police officer] straight away hit me, kicked me on my chin. My face turned and he hit me again on my left chin and jaw. He kicked me with his feet, kicked my groin [kemaluan]. He was wearing police boots, full police uniform. He kicked my right side and I fell. It was inside the examination room in the prison. I stood up and then straight away he kicked me here [in the mouth]. He cut my lip, both the top and the bottom. For about a week I couldn’t eat. They took me to the hospital in Baucau. The police officer from Laga took me to the hospital. In the room at the time [the beating took place] there was the officer from the prison, the perpetrator, two policemen from Laga, and me. They all just watched, didn’t try and stop it. It was about thirty minutes this violence. Finally he took out his gun and threatened me. He was about one meter away from me. He said, “Later, I will kill you.” I answered, “I haven’t done anything wrong. Why do you hit me?” He said, “You be quiet, later I will shoot you.”5 

Many individuals whom Human Rights Watch interviewed also described their arrest by the police as illegal. Many said that they were not told what the allegations against them were, and many were held without charges for more than the seventy-two-hour period allowed by East Timorese law. Police officers appear to habitually utilize the full seventy-two hours of detention as a punitive, rather than procedural, measure.

The police and other state institutions have often failed to respond to incidents of police abuse appropriately. There is a lack of understanding among those investigating complaints that police officers committing a crime such as assault should be prosecuted through the criminal justice system as well as through the internal disciplinary system. The internal police oversight body, the Professional Ethics and Deontology Unit (PEDU, until recently called the Professonal Ethics Office, PEO), has often failed to take cases of police abuse seriously, follow up on complaints, or appropriately discipline the officers involved. Insufficient police training on internal investigations and follow up, and the absence of a functioning external, independent oversight and accountability mechanism for the police service have meant that such complaints are often dealt with inconsistently, or in some cases not at all. Where cases are taken up, victims are usually left uninformed about developments and outcomes of their cases. Human Rights Watch spoke to many victims and their families about their attempts to seek accountability for human rights violations committed by the East Timor police force. Many were frustrated and perplexed by opaque bureaucratic procedures and long delays.

Within the East Timor government, the portfolio for internal security lies with the Ministry of Interior. Ultimate responsibility for accountability for policing therefore lies with the minister of interior, currently Rogerio Lobato. However, while institutionally subordinate to the Ministry, the East Timor police service also has its own distinct legal personality and operational structure.6 This includes a general commander and deputies, separate heads for each specialized unit, and thirteen district commanders. Together with two Ministry-appointed officers, this group comprises the Superior Police Council, which ordinarily convenes every six months to discuss disciplinary matters such as those arising from rights violations.7

Swift and appropriate disciplinary action and prosecutions against police officers responsible for human rights abuses and abuse of authority are critical indicators of the commitment of East Timor’s government to creating a professional police force. They are also an indicator of how seriously the government takes its human rights obligations under the country’s constitution and the many human rights treaties it has acceded to. It is worth noting that the country’s leaders often talk about the deficit of human resources in the country and the need for increased training. This is certainly necessary, but it will only make a difference if at a political and policy level the kind of violence described in this report is punished. Otherwise, the failure to penalize human rights violators will create a climate of impunity that in turn will undermine training as an effective tool to decrease the level of police violence.

With the legacy of brutal Indonesian policing during the nearly twenty-five-year occupation that ended in 1999, it is perhaps not surprising that new recruits into East Timor’s police are mirroring past experience in ignorance of professional standards. However, such behavior also reflects poor training, accountability and oversight, and can no longer be excused nearly six years after the first new police graduated in July 2000. In fact it is now more likely that the lack of institutionalized responses to police brutality has been a key factor in the emergence of police abuse as one of East Timor’s most pressing and current human rights problems.

One serious consequence of this emerging pattern of abuse and impunity in East Timor is the potential for long-term erosion of public respect and support for the police, both as individual officers and as an institution. With the creation of a new country, the East Timorese people expected that its police would behave differently than the Indonesian-controlled forces during the occupation. But ineffective control, inadequate training, poor accountability mechanisms and lack of proper vetting of police officers have meant that abuse of powers by police remains a serious challenge to the rule of law in East Timor. The United Nation’s failure to address this issue effectively while it was in charge during the transition to independence was also a contributory factor. 

East Timor is now at a crossroads. While it is recognized that resources in East Timor are at a premium, the importance of establishing a professional and accountable police force is crucial to the country’s future stability. A lack of accountability for abuses will undermine trust in the police and therefore its effectiveness and capacity to uphold the rule of law. Tolerated police abuse will make individuals reluctant to report crime to the police, or cooperate with them in criminal investigations, either as witnesses or victims. This in turn may lead to a vicious cycle in which a police force increasingly criticized for an inability to do its job effectively turns to ever harsher tactics and increasingly resorts to violence to achieve results. If present violations are not addressed as an institutional problem, they run the risk of becoming part of an endemic culture of abuse and impunity in the world’s newest national police force, a culture that will be hard to eliminate once it takes hold.

Key Recommendations

Human Rights Watch found evidence of human rights violations by police officers to be widespread, although not yet endemic, in East Timor. Now is the time to address this problem before it becomes endemic. Human Rights Watch urges the East Timor 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.
  • Ensure that legislation, policy and procedures are all in place so that the police operate under a coherent and clear legal framework that specifies police powers and their limits. This should include provisions to hold police publicly accountable in a transparent and credible manner.
  • Support the Provedor’s Office in creating a unit dedicated to oversight of the police.
  • Task the minister of interior and the police commissioner to strengthen the police force’s Professional Ethics and Deontology Unit by providing strong support for the unit’s authority to enforce its decisions and by penalizing officers who do not comply with its directives.
  • Ensure all oversight mechanisms coordinate and work together.

We also urge the East Timor police service (PNTL) to:

  • Take swift and meaningful action against police officers who torture, arbitrarily detain, or use excessive force against members of the population. This should include administrative measures up to and including dismissal, and, where appropriate, criminal prosecution.
  • Take 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. The police commissioner should issue a directive to each district commander advising that he or she will be held personally responsible for ensuring the officers under his or her command comply with the existing disciplinary regulation and Rules of Organization Procedures (ROPs). 

Donors should:

  • Raise with the government of East Timor in all official meetings, and at the highest level, concerns over police violence, including torture. Call on the East Timor government to ensure that police treatment of all individuals conforms to international human rights standards.
  • Substantially increase support for effective human rights monitoring in East Timor through existing mechanisms, such as civil society. As an integral part of this strategy, provide assistance for the development of local human rights groups with the capacity for independent monitoring of police violence, and to agencies that can provide services for victims.
  • Initiate and support joint meetings between the East Timorese government, NGOs and the PNTL to coordinate, fund and plan for long-term strategies on capacity building, training, and other support to the PNTL.

[1] Human Rights Watch interview with Carlito Gusmao, thirty-five-year-old victim, Aldeia Tasmasak, Bobonaro district, East Timor, May 24, 2005.

[2] East Timor’s official name is Republica Democratica Timor-Leste (RDTL, Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste). For the purposes of this report we use the English translation “East Timor”.

[3] Human Rights Watch interview with Carlito Gusmao, Aldeia Tasmasak, Bobonaro district, May 24, 2005.

[4] Human Rights Watch interview with Mericio Akara, researcher, La’o Hamutuk, East Timor Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis, Dili, East Timor, May 30, 2005.

[5] Human Rights Watch interview with Mario Belo, twenty-seven-year-old victim, Desa Mulia, Aldeia Karano, Baucau, East Timor, May 17, 2005.

[6] Organic Structure of the Ministry of Interior, Decree Law No. 3/2004, article 5 (April 14, 2004).

[7] Organic Law of the National Police of Timor-Leste, Decree Law No. 8/2004, article 28 (May 5, 2004).

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