East Timor’s Unready Police

United Nations wraps up
police training despite human rights concerns

 

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Philippine UN-soldiers in East Timor

Photo by J. Patrick Fischer

The United Nations,
called in two years ago in the wake of a breakdown of East Timor’s
security forces that led to dozens of deaths, appears set to end its
training of local police, many of whom are still unfit to be in
uniform, leading to fears that carnage will begin again in a country
ill-prepared for it.

“I would say
there's still some real concern about police regarding their respect
for human rights,” said Louis Gentile, the UN High Commission
for Human Rights representative in East Timor.

The UN’s
certification process is scheduled to end its two-year run in
December. It was established in 2006 following the breakdown in
security forces here that, in addition to the deaths, made more than
100,000 homeless as hundreds of army and police deserted their posts
and began attacking their former comrades. This inflamed civilian
tensions and made the remaining forces paranoid of each other as
heavy weaponry was misused to terrorize civilians and security
personnel alike.

By August 2006 order
had been restored by UNPol, the unwieldy acronym for the UN’s
police forces, as well as international security forces, but local
security forces—especially police—remained in tatters.
Moral was low and the breakdown of the institution six months earlier
prompted Timor to ask the UN mission here to help “reform,
restructure and rebuild” local police.

According to UNPol's
plan, all police who wished to remain on the force were meant to
submit to a screening process followed by months of training and
mentoring with their UNPol counterparts. By February of this year,
police had spent 15 months with UNPol.

However, during those
first 15 months with UNPol police, the human rights abuses never
stopped. A UN human rights document from 2007 reports: “Since
August 2006 the UN has recorded several cases of cruel, inhuman and
degrading treatment or punishment of persons during their arrest, in
detention or during interrogation. In some cases, victims needed
medical treatment.”

In one case the report
states the police beat a suspect so badly he was knocked unconscious
and then left in his cell for an hour until UN human rights officers
insisted the man be taken to a hospital for treatment. Despite the
documented abuses, police officers were not tried in court and were
not dismissed. Their UN training continued.

Then, on the morning of
February 11, President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana
Gusmão were attacked by armed rebels, narrowly escaping. The
government called a state of siege in response and police and army
forces were given a joint command to catch the rebels responsible for
the attacks. To do this, hundreds of police officers were taken—on
a rotating basis—from UNPol training for weeks at a time.

Outside of UNPol's
watch, police within the joint command terrorized and abused
civilians beyond anything seen yet. According to government records,
from June 2005 to August 2007 there were 70 reported cases of human
rights abuses by the police. From mid-February to mid-May of this
year Gentile said his office got 37 reports of human rights
violations by the joint command—the majority of which he says
were committed by the police who had been trained by UNPol.

“A lot of people
we've spoken to have said not everything was reported because people
have been afraid something would happen to them if they do report
it,” Gentile said. “People are still intimidated to come
forward and we estimate the number of human rights abuses reported to
us and other organizations will be higher.”

Part of the problem is
the government's refusal to sack incompetent police.

The joint command,
outside of UNPol's control, staffed senior posts with police unfit to
serve under UNPol criteria. The government made no effort to oust the
problem officers.

According to acting
UNPol commissioner Juan Carlos Arevalo, at least three senior police
officers are stationed at joint command headquarters with whom UNMIT
refused to work because of the officers' gross negligence and
unprofessional behavior.

According to the UN,
one senior officer in the joint command may have been involved in an
incident in which the police fired six shots into a crowded market in
2006. Two other senior police officers were recommended for expulsion
by the head of the UN mission in a personal letter to the president
in 2007. They have since been promoted and one of the men is in
charge of investigating complaints of human rights abuses within the
joint command.

“We have been
complaining frequently, not only in this case but in other cases,”
Arevalo said. “But we have gotten no response from the
government.”

The majority of the
reports received by Gentile's office involve beatings, threats,
illegal searches and illegal detentions. He emphasized that the human
rights abuses reported have not included severe torture, although a
few cases were “borderline.” The most notorious of those
cases was the civilian teacher who was beaten about the head and
chest with a pipe for about 30 minutes during an investigation.
Toward the end, as the middle-aged man lay in a pool of his own
blood, he begged simply to be shot. The joint command got no
information from him—he said they didn't even ask him any
questions before the beating began—but his injuries were so
severe he had to be treated at the national hospital.

If the government is
worried about the abuse, it has said nothing publicly. Both the
president and the prime minister have said numerous times they
considered the joint command to be a success and they are looking to
institutionalize the force under a new name.

Even certification and
UNPol training does not guarantee a respect for human rights. Gentile
said the officers were given human rights training which lasted from
one to three days—which he admits is insufficient.

“I've heard
police say outright 'We didn't do anything bad—we just slapped
the man, or we just kicked him a few times,'” said Gentile.
“Some of them don't even understand that it's wrong.”

But as the UN mandate
here ends in February 2009, the mission is eager to get the police
out the door. Last week the UNPol graduated the last of its police
training program. Only a few months of training remain before UNPol's
mandate ends entirely.

Arevalo said he expects
the last officer will be certified by UNPol by December. Currently
UNPol has given final certification to 601 officers since September
2006, so over the next six months it must finalize some 2,516
more—despite the concerns.

In Timor, one of the
poorest countries in Asia, where 21 per cent of those born won't make
it to 40 and most families live on a dollar a day, there are plenty
of other, less controversial problems to worry about.

Ramos-Horta said last
month he is eager for Timor to repair its image and join the regional
Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) bloc. He promised that
within four years the country's internal problems will be under
control because, “they wouldn't want a basket case, an unstable
new member.”

If East Timor can
maintain its internal stability, the tiny nation stands to gain
tremendously.

Two months ago the
country hosted its first donor conference since 2006 and aid agencies
from around the world promised to give hundreds of millions in aid
for future projects. From 1999 to 2006 the country was given some
US$3 billion in aid and grants.

However, civil unrest
has derailed progress before. During the 2006 crisis donors evacuated
and non-government organizations were shuttered for months—and
in some cases their work stopped for a year.

But Gentile remains
hopeful, even though he admits real progress will take more time.

“I think we have
to believe the PNTL will continue to improve and that good people
will continue to rise to positions of power,” he said.

“The police want
to be professional and they want to be a force respected by people
here and by people outside the country.”

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