Page last updated at 17:10 GMT, Friday, 4 July 2008 18:10 UK

Justice and compassion in East Timor

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Dili

Soldiers march in Dili on 20 May 2008
Some say a lack of justice is undermining East Timor's stability

"That's him," our guide told me.

The man in the sagging brown vest was sitting at the entrance to his home, enjoying the morning sun.

A mundane moment of freedom for a man convicted of the most serious crimes.

Nine years ago, during East Timor's vote for independence, Joni Marques was the leader of a brutal pro-Indonesian militia, Tim Alpha; a group that murdered and tortured fellow East Timorese.

Now, newly-released from prison after a presidential pardon, he is just another one of Dili's shifting residents, surviving in the rudimentary family home, trying to pick up the strands of his life.

But how do you start again after a life like his?

"I'm already starting to forget what I did," he said.

"At the time, the Indonesian military give us drugs that made me unafraid of killing anybody. But now - little by little - I'm already forgetting."

It's bad that someone who was sentenced for 33 years now lives free and very close to us, as victims

Adorito da Costa Freitas

But others are finding it harder to forget - least of all about the attack by Joni Marques and his men on a convoy of eight civilians.

They shot, burned and hacked to death every one of them - including priests and nuns, one of them at prayer by the roadside

In deeply Catholic East Timor, it is an event that has not lost its power.

Joni Marques told me they never planned the attack, but the drugs would make them lose control.

"I have to forget those things," he said. "I have to go forward, not just stay like this. The problem I face now is whether the victims' families will accept me."

Many of them do not yet know he is free. Others are all too aware.

'Not fair'

A few metres from where Joni Marques lives is the home of Adorito da Costa Freitas, the nephew of one of the victims in the clergy attack.

Rioters walk past a burning van in Dili on 28 April 2006
There was widespread rioting in East Timor in mid-2006
"It's not justice," he said. "I can understand that the president forgives him for what he did - but I still feel it's not fair. It's bad that someone who was sentenced for 33 years now lives free and very close to us, as victims."

Joni Marques is surrounded by uncomfortable neighbours.

If you come out of his new home and head in another direction, you come face to face with the headquarters of the UN mission in Dili.

He was indicted eight years ago by the UN's Serious Crimes Unit and convicted by the special panels set up to try them.

Sentenced to 33 years for crimes against humanity, he served just a quarter of that. So how is that going down at the UN?

"Clearly, it's not a good message with regard to impunity and accountability for serious crimes," said Louis Gentile, country representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Dili police station
The UN will soon return control of policing to the Timorese force
But it is important to remember, he indicated, that in the case of Joni Marques and his men, there was a legal process, there was a conviction, and there was time served.

That is not case with many others accused of violent crimes during Indonesia's occupation, during the independence vote in 1999 and even in the more recent violence of 2006.

The real damage, in other words, may be to future trials. Getting people to give difficult evidence now, some believe, may have just got a little harder.

Sixteen men have so far been released as a result of the president's pardons. Four of them - all members of Tim Alpha - were guilty of crimes against humanity.

President Joe Ramos-Horta has sternly defended his right to issue the pardons, a right that is given to him under both domestic and international law.

And he has emphasized the need for compassion and forgiveness in dealing with East Timor's troubled past.

He is even reported this week to be putting forward plans for an amnesty covering most of those accused of violence in 2006.

Poor deterrent

Justice is a broad concept in East Timor. It is not necessarily seen as the exclusive preserve of the formal judicial system.

Community reconciliation is seen as important too, as is forgiveness.

But there are those who believe that unless these kinds of crimes are dealt with by the judicial system, security will continue to flirt with East Timor.

Not necessarily because the people released onto the streets - or never picked off them - are still dangerous, or their freedom is politically motivated. But simply because a visibly porous, erratic justice system is a poor deterrent.

And that goes for East Timor's security forces as much as for its civilians.

Reforming the country's army and police is essential for stability. Two years ago, they were fighting each other, a fight that sucked in politicians and civilians alike. It led to 37 deaths and the fall of a government.

The UN is due to begin handing back policing control to the Timorese force this month.

But without a strong justice system, a reformed police service will be of limited use.

And if few people pay for the crimes of the past, what message does that send for the future?

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