On Tuesday October 3rd, a video surfaced on the Internet depicting police officers in Oecussi district torturing detainees. In this video, personnel from the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) slap, kick, whip, and berate several young men whom the police officers had arrested. The officers subsequently shove the detainees to the ground and stomp on them. A later video segment shows the detainees lying face down on the ground in the middle of their village with their hands tied. This indicates that the PNTL used public humiliation as an additional extrajudicial punishment. The government of Timor-Leste must take immediate action to address these human rights violations and hold the perpetrators accountable.
Although Timor-Leste ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture in 2003, the recent video indicates that security actors in the country continue to engage in this reprehensible behavior. In this instance, the police detained several young men who had recently returned to Timor-Leste from Indonesia. The police suspected these individuals of involvement in illegal Martial Arts Groups (MAGs), and subsequently detained and tortured them. If these individuals actually are MAG members, they should be tried in court according to a newly passed law (No. 5/2017) that aims to control MAG activity. It is always unacceptable for the PNTL to torture people, even if they are guilty of serious crimes. When police officers—whose job involves upholding justice—perpetrate abuses themselves, they undermine the rule of law in the entire country.
The government of Timor-Leste should promptly take the following actions. First, Parliamentary Committee B (defense, security and foreign affairs) should summon the police commander from the relevant part of Oecussi to testify in order to clarify the events that occurred. Secondly, the police officers involved in the torture should be put on trial. Those responsible for these blatant human rights violations must receive penalties according to criminal law, and not merely the PNTL disciplinary code. Anything other than a quick and effective response risks creating a climate of impunity that will lead to more human rights violations.
This kind of police torture has been occurring frequently in Timor-Leste since independence. It will continue unless the government, and especially the Minister of Defense and Security, mounts an intensive campaign against police brutality. Specifically, the government should institute human rights training teaching police officers how to arrest people without violating their basic dignity. More generally, police officers must be trained to uphold the rule of law, instead of the rule of brute force. The PNTL commanders must strictly uphold their organization’s code of conduct. Furthermore, Parliamentary Committee B should take a proactive approach to bolster professionalism and accountability among PNTL personnel. Only an intensive effort, relying on coordination between the relevant Ministers and the PNTL commanders, can prevent the recurrence of these abuses in the future.