East Timor’s Unready Police

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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.”