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Presidential pardons are no substitute for justice, civil society says

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Timor Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta announced he would grant presidential pardons to more than 80 convicted criminals. The Judicial System Monitoring Programme (JSMP), a FORUM-ASIA member in the country, warns that his decision may “lead to the further entrenching of a culture of impunity”.

The previous week saw Timor Leste rejoice at the safe return of President Jose Ramos-Horta, now recovered from an attempt on his life. Since the President’s re-entry into political life, he has made a number of surprising public statements, most recently on Wednesday, 23 April.

In an address to Parliament, Dr Ramos-Horta announced his intention to grant presidential pardons to more than 80 convicted criminals. Former Fretilin government minister Rogerio Lobato would be among those pardoned for good behaviour while serving their sentences, he said.

Lobato, found guilty of manslaughter and of using firearms counter to public order, has served only five months of a seven-and-a-half year prison term. A panel of judges concluded that his role in arming civilian groups during the 2006 crisis contributed to the ensuing violence and instability.

Under the Constitution, the President is empowered to grant pardons or commute sentences after consultation with the Government. Accordingly, it is hoped that this pronouncement will not be given effect without due consultation. Such a duty must not be exercised unilaterally.

Particular care must be taken to ensure presidential pardons do not simply become a means by which the political agenda may subvert judicial process. The singling out of Rogerio Lobato as worthy of clemency may make it hard to avoid the implication that there is little political will to see him face justice.

In fact, few of those who perpetrated criminal acts during the breakdown of law and order in 2006 have yet been held responsible in the courts. The reports of the CAVR and Commission of Inquiry processes have strongly warned against neglecting the public need for legal redress of past wrongs.

Civil society groups, including JSMP, successfully lobbied the Office of the President to veto a proposed amnesty law that would excuse serious offences. The President has spoken about building a culture of forgiveness in Timor Leste. This must not lead to the further entrenching of a culture of impunity.

For further information, please contact:

Timotio de Deus, Director JSMP, phone: 3323883/7292909, e-mail: [email protected]