Fundasaun Mahein (FM) has received notice of a troubling case of extrajudicial violence and torture reportedly perpetrated by a member of PNTL in Manatuto. On Saturday, September 2, an off-duty member of Task Force Esquadra Manatuto Vila, “Officer A,” entered into a verbal confrontation with a civilian. The dispute culminated in the civilian attempting to strike Officer A. Officer A, who was wearing civilian clothing at the time, went home, changed into his uniform, and returned to the scene with a squad car and two fellow officers. The three officers allegedly beat the civilian, placed him under arrest, and, while transporting him to the police station, beat him in the car. The civilian alleges that Officer A then placed him in a cell overnight and released tear gas into the cell, nearly killing him.
If these allegations are true, FM condemns the actions of Officer A, which constitute several serious crimes. First, as an off-duty policeman, Officer A did not have the authority to place the civilian under arrest and should have reported the incident to an on-duty community police officer. It is illegal for officers to wear their uniforms or carry weapons when they are not on-duty, or to invoke their authority in order to settle a personal dispute. Second, even if the civilian attacked the officer, it was Officer A’s duty to pursue justice through legal, formal means. By taking the law into his own hands and responding by physically assaulting and torturing the civilian, Officer A broke laws that apply to police and civilian alike. The fact that Officer A is a member of PNTL and is responsible for upholding the rule of law makes his disregard for the law all the more disturbing.
Unfortunately, the incident described above is just one example of the many cases of police brutality reported to FM. Police abuse of power is a systematic problem that affects all districts in Timor-Leste. The consequences of Officer A’s actions – and the actions of all officers who engage in brutality – go beyond the immediate physical harm to the victim. They also reflect poorly on PNTL as an institution, decreasing trust even in those police officers that obey the rule of law. As a result, civilians often think twice before they go to the PNTL for help. The fact that the civilian in this case reported Officer A’s crimes to Parliament rather than to the PNTL District Commander reflects his fear that PNTL would ignore his complaints, or worse, retaliate against him.
To improve trust in the PNTL, FM recommends that the new government revise training of police officers so as to reduce future acts of brutality. In particular, FM cautions against the negative influence of the National Republican Guard (GNR), a Portuguese paramilitary group that assists with training and capacity building of Timorese police. The GNR has a documented history of brutality, and its poor practices risk rubbing off on those of the PNTL. FM recommends that GNR’s role be reduced in favor of organizations such as the New Zealand Police (NZP), which has so far done a good job in training Timorese community police officers to be creative problem solvers rather than simple enforcers.
FM also recommends that Officer A be investigated and, if found guilty of the above allegations, receive not just internal disciplinary sanctions but also criminal sanctions. Holding officers accountable for their crimes sends a message to the people that abuse of power will not be tolerated. This helps restore trust in police. By responding appropriately to cases of brutality such as this one, PNTL ultimately does a service to its own officers, most of whom respect the rule of law and work hard to protect civilians on a daily basis.