By: Our Correspondent

Since
the dawn of time justice in East Timor has been measured in water
buffalo. Generally a goat theft costs one buffalo and a rape is worth
two, although it varies from town to town.

Though
traditional justice was never institutionalized, it has remained an
underpinning of village life here. Before Indonesia’s 1975 invasion
Timor was a Portuguese colony and for 400 years whatever went on
outside the capital Dili was ignored. During the occupation courts were
notorious for their corrupt judges whose decisions were not respected.
When the Indonesians were ousted in late 1999 there was a lot of hope
for improvement.

But
though independence came in 2002—following two years of United Nations
interim rule—East Timor is still struggling to create a set of
comprehensive laws. Talk to any legal aid group in this tiny Asian
nation and they’ll tell you the best hope is a judicial system
including formal justice with trained judges and lawyers. According to
the constitution, everyone has the right to a fair trial and an
attorney and innocence is presumed until proven otherwise. There’s no
mention of water buffalo.

But
even as the legislature moves to finalize the nation’s first penal code
this month, a minor government official is on a crusade to formalize terra bandu. Usually terra bandu is traditional law used to protect natural resources, but the state secretary for the environment says it can do more.

State
Secretary Abilio Lima has already convinced about one third of the
nation’s one million people that everything from cattle rustling to
rape are crimes best resolved outside courtrooms by water buffalo
justice.

To
those who know him Lima is an odd character to push for justice. In
1999, the year of Timor’s bloody break from Indonesia, Lima stood
firmly with Indonesia as a member of the FPDK, an Indonesian umbrella
group which gave money and support to some of the most notorious and
bloodthirsty pro-Indonesian gangs. The FPDK is responsible for the
death of hundreds of innocent Timorese.

Now
as state secretary of the environment he believes he has been tasked to
look after the natural environment as well as the home environment of
his countrymen.

“I
think the environment has a relationship with sexuality,” he said.
“When you talk about environment, you talk about human environment,
about the social environment. I focus on the total comprehensive
environment.”

In the last year Lima says his office has approved a terra bandu
system in about half the districts in East Timor. Last week he was in
Tulatakeo, a village a few hours south of Dili. He was the government
representative in a ceremony which marked the acceptance of traditional
justice. Now the village chief can treat serious crimes according to
local whim.

“The advantage of terra bandu is that it comes from the community,” Lima said. “Because it comes from the community, they have a responsibility to it.”

According
to Lima, the problem is the penal code. Six years of independence and
East Timor is still without its own set of laws, relying instead on
Indonesian laws last updated in 1999.

“People
who don't like Indonesia don't respect the laws,” Lima said. “So we
will use traditional law until we can agree on a national law.”

Judicial authorities here are shocked.

“If
the secretary of state for the environment is doing this, he is very
wrong,” said Fernanda Borges, a member of parliament who sits on the
judicial oversight committee. “He’s very wrong because he is operating
outside the constitution and outside the judicial system.” Borges has
said she will launch a parliamentary enquiry into the matter.

But
officials in the justice ministry say they are not concerned with Lima.
Although no one in the ministry of justice had heard about Lima’s push
for terra bandu, the permanent secretary for the minister said he supported parts of the plan.

“Rape is a crime you can’t resolve through terra bandu,”
Crisagno Neto said. “You have to take that to court.” But he added that
smaller crimes like minor domestic violence could be resolved using
traditional justice. This directly contradicts the Indonesian penal
code—which Timor follows.

“Domestic
violence is a crime at whatever level,” said Mitch Dufrense, head of
the United Nations Justice Support Unit in Timor. “The severity of the
specified level is something for the court to decide.”

But
women’s rights groups here say community police often tell victims to
take their problems to the village elders. According to a lawyer at a
local NGO, the police usually won’t get involved in domestic violence
or rape cases unless the village chief cannot resolve the problem.

Besides, the permanent secretary for the justice ministry says the courts in Timor are not for everyone.

“Terra bandu
is easier and faster [than court trials] in rural areas for people who
have no money,” Neto said. “But in cities and in areas where people
have money, they can’t use terra bandu. They need to go to court.”

But
East Timor is one of the most impoverished nations in Asia where
unemployment is around 60 per cent and the average income is about a
dollar a day. Most Timorese don’t live in cities and spend their days
farming or hunting for food. Under Neto’s criteria almost no one should
go to court.

And as it stands today virtually no one does.

In
a country where it is estimated that about half of all women will
suffer gender based crimes this year, officially closing the door on
formal justice has serious consequences. According to the local United
Nations office, only 132 women have come forward so far this year to
report gender based violence to the police—a far cry from the estimated
250,000 victims.

Instead
of a courtroom, many of these women are being dealt with in mean
thatched huts. Instead of judges, these women will visit elderly
village leaders like Florindo Mesquita Lorego.

Lorego
is a balding, snowy bearded village chief in a hamlet hours away from
the capitol. He, along with a dozen other village leaders, decides terra bandu cases.

“[Terra bandu]
applies to people who are thieves, horse thieves, cattle rustlers, and
rapists,” Lorego explained. “People who go into someone's garden
without permission from the owner, that's a crime.”

He said rape is not a big problem in his community, but it happens.

“Rape
is resolved with two cows and you close the woman's wound,” Lorego
said. In Timor when you close the wound you make the problem better—and
the problem with rape is the family name. The two cows (as well as the
occasional goat or pig) are given to the victim’s family. Often one of
the animals is killed, cooked and then the rapist and the men from the
victim’s family eat and drink palm wine together. The woman is not
involved in the resolution. For her part, all the victim is expected to
do is tell Lorego what happened.

Lorego
has lived all his life according to these values and now that he has
government approval to dole out village justice, he is happy to oblige.