Lahane Shooting Incident: Accountability And Major Reforms Needed

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In Lahane, Dili, in the early hours of Saturday 5 June, a drunken dispute between neighbours escalated into deadly violence, when an off-duty PNTL member opened fire with his service weapon on several members of a single household. Tragically, a father and son were killed, while their son-in-law was critically wounded. The killings have led to an outpouring of anger and condemnation from the public, and PNTL Command and the Government made swift declarations condemning the PNTL member involved, offering condolences to the victim’s family, and ensuring the public that the incident would be investigated appropriately. Civil society and veterans’ groups have demanded wider reforms within the police and called for the resignation of the PNTL Commander. On Saturday evening, video footage circulated showing the offending PNTL member’s house on fire, as well as angry confrontations between youths in Lahane and other police officers.

Fundasaun Mahein (FM) offers our deepest condolences to the family of the victims. The killing of anyone is a tragedy, but the fact that one of the victims was a veteran of Timor-Leste’s independence struggle who has been killed by a representative of the state which he sacrificed so much to bring about, makes this incident especially meaningful. While FM agrees that the PNTL member in question must be punished in accordance with the law, we also see this incident as a symptom of structural problems within Timor-Leste’s security institutions, state and society.

This latest example of violence and indiscipline from PNTL is far from an isolated incident. As FM and others have documented extensively, there have been many similar occurrences, most notably the 2018 police killing of three youths in Kulu-hun under similar circumstances to Saturday’s tragedy. During the State of Emergency, there have been numerous incidences of PNTL officers using unnecessary force against community members. In addition, PNTL members have frequently used their service weapons in ways which contravene existing procedures.

The unlawful use of weapons by PNTL members is partly explained by the fact that PNTL Command has failed to enforce existing rules regarding the control of service weapons. As regulated by the PNTL Organic Law, PNTL has an established armoury system and prohibits police officers from carrying firearms while off-duty. FM has long advocated that PNTL Command rigorously enforce these rules to ensure that off-duty police officers do not carry guns. While PNTL Command has enforced the armoury system immediately after violent incidents such as occurred in Kulu-hun in 2018, FM’s monitoring has found that enforcement and compliance have been limited at most other times. As a result, PNTL members routinely bring their service weapons home with them when going off-duty, rather than handing them in to the police armoury as per official procedure. This directly contravenes PNTL’s Organic Law and greatly increases the risk of violent incidents involving police officers.

Another issue relates to the lack of monitoring of the mental and emotional capacity of PNTL members and ensuring adequate ability to resolve conflict peacefully. FM has long advocated for conducting psychological tests during recruitment and regularly during police service, and running courses in anger management and conflict resolution, which is common practice for security forces in many countries. In a press release following Saturday’s incident, the National Chega Centre (CNC) similarly recommended biannual psychological evaluations and anger management training for police officers. However, PNTL Command has not adopted these policies, perhaps due to both a lack of political will and limited capacity to carry out such assessments in Timor-Leste.

FM and CNC note further that many incidents involving PNTL members, including Saturday’s actions, violate the spirit of Community Policing which the PNTL Command has supposedly embraced, as well as the promises made by the state to abide by the recommendations of the Chega! report. The objective of Community Policing is to establish deep, cooperative relationships between police officers and the communities in which they operate, in order to minimise conflict and human rights violations. Likewise, the Chega! report aimed to document and publicise crimes against humanity to ensure that they never occur again in Timor-Leste. We agree with CNC’s observation that the latest police killings and regular violations by PNTL members show that many PNTL members have failed to fully understand both the Community Policing model and the lessons contained within the Chega! report concerning the human rights violations committed during the Indonesian occupation.

FM wrote previously how the gap between formal rules and informal realities within Timor-Leste’s state institutions has enabled a culture of impunity, especially for people who wield institutional power such as politicians and other state officials. The Prime Minister and PNTL Command have condemned the offending police officer and promised to ensure that he will be punished; however, in their public statements they did not take responsibility for failing to enforce the rules around weapons storage and use. While the officer in question undoubtedly must be punished according to the law, by making the individual perpetrator the primary focus of condemnation and investigation, leaders obscure the structural factors which have created the conditions for such incidents to occur, and their own responsibility for creating those conditions.

Another structural factor in Timor-Leste’s state and society which we believe contributes to human rights violations and impunity relates to our culture of masculinity and Maun Bo’otism, which are prevalent in all areas of Timorese society. These patriarchal attitudes and practices have complex roots, but are linked to our experiences of violence and warfare, as well as some aspects of ‘traditional’ Timorese culture. Their effects can be seen manifested not only in the behaviour and rhetoric of security forces and some high-level decision makers, but also in Timor-Leste’s high rates of domestic violence, corporal punishment of children and sexual abuse and harassment.

Unsurprisingly, the view that physical violence is both acceptable and necessary is widespread within both the police and communities. FM has heard police commanders and officers say that they feel ‘weak’ without their firearms and that communities would not respect them or follow their instructions if they were unarmed. Community members have expressed similar sentiments, saying that they would not fear the police if they did not carry guns. These findings illustrate the degree to which violence – or the threat of violence – as a policing tool has been normalised and internalised by both police and communities. However, while acceptance of violence is deep-rooted in our society, the frequent violent incidents involving security forces are signs of an unhealthy relationship between the security forces and the people whom they are supposed to protect and serve.

At the same time, despite our history of conflict and the common use of physical force as discipline and to settle disputes, Timor-Leste is still a relatively peaceful and safe country. An important factor is the fact that there are very few firearms within the community, while criminal elements in Timor-Leste do not use guns, unlike in many other countries such as Papua New Guinea, Philippines, USA or Latin America. The lack of deadly weapons within communities thus means that the physical risks for police are quite low. In fact, excluding the violence which occurred during 2006, FM is unaware of any PNTL members having been killed while on active duty, further illustrating the limited danger faced by Timor-Leste’s police.

Therefore, although PNTL members are now used to carrying guns at all times, FM questions whether this practice is necessary in Timor-Leste, especially given the lack of discipline around PNTL’s use of guns. In many low crime countries, such as Ireland, New Zealand and Pacific island states, only specialised response units carry guns, while regular officers only carry batons or other non-lethal weapons. For PNTL to be able to respond with physical force when required, non-lethal methods such as tasers or advanced martial arts training would be sufficient to respond to almost all situations in Timor-Leste. However, for such an approach to function, much work also needs to be done to change societal attitudes towards violence and policing. The disarming of police must also have buy-in from politicians and police command, which requires a major shift in attitudes at the top level.

Finally, given the current level of social tensions related to dissatisfaction with COVID-19 restrictions, the poor flood response and long-term socio-economic problems, the death of a respected veteran and his son at the hands of a state agent has the potential to escalate into a major crisis. This latest incident is yet another example of the urgent need to reform the security sector and hold high level officials accountable for their failures. At the same time, it also illustrates that our country needs to move away from the old ‘Rule of the Deal’ system dominated by Maun Bo’otism and the whims of a few powerful individuals, towards a more democratic and stable future.

In relation to both the latest incident and long-running problems which underly it, FM offers the following recommendations to decision makers:

  • Ministry of Interior must conduct a thorough review of PNTL arms policies and practices, including armoury, anger management and conflict resolution, in order to identify failures and hold those responsible accountable. It should also carry out feasibility studies of replacing service firearms with non-lethal weapons and martials arts training for regular PNTL officers.
  • PNTL must implement regular psychological assessments for all prospective and serving PNTL members. If the capacity is lacking due to lack of psychologists, this capacity must be developed through training and recruitment, with assistance from foreign experts if necessary.
  • PNTL should begin the process of developing a comprehensive theoretical and physical training program for all recruits, lasting for a minimum of three years, with a focus on firearms management, laws, administration and conflict resolution.
  • PNTL should develop a study program for serving officers which incorporates the socialisation and study of the Chega! Report recommendations and the fundamentals of Community Policing.
  • As per our previous recommendation, our leaders must sit together to overcome their personal differences and agree on a path forward out of the current political deadlock and rivalry, which is preventing progress and development for the country.

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