Death In The Police Cell: A Serious Failure Of Responsibility By PNTL

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Regarding the case of the person who died in the police cell on the night of Thursday 1 September at PNTL headquarters, Caicoli, Dili, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) considers this incident to be a major failure of PNTL workplace security. FM is extremely saddened by this event, which also makes us question the institutional functioning of PNTL itself. An additional question raised by this incident is that FM does not yet know whether this case can be considered a suicide or homicide. Therefore, FM has published this article to alert the public and state institutions to this serious case.

General cell conditions in Timor-Leste

According to human rights principles and international conventions such as the Nelson Mandela Rules on the treatment of prisoners, detention facilities must meet minimum standards in order to guarantee the personal dignity and security of each prisoner. Unfortunately, based on FM’s analysis, conditions in detention facilities including temporary cells cannot be said to guarantee the security of individuals going through penal processes. Several years ago, FM wrote about the poor conditions in prisons, but until now there has not been concrete action by the Government to address the problems we identified.

The detention cell is an important space for the investigation and identification of people who have committed crimes, as it ensures that suspects cannot run away or hide, or cause other problems such as threaten other people or witnesses. At the same time, the temporary detention cell is a safe space to secure a suspect from danger and threats.

FM sadly notes that, in general, PNTL has not given sufficient attention to ensuring that detention cells are safe, comfortable and guarantee the personal safety of suspects. Conditions in police cells can make people suffer from stress or anxiety, which can be a contributing factor in a person dying by suicide. For FM, this is a weak link in Timor-Leste’s criminal justice system, which can lead to suspects dying in the detention cell. Therefore, FM believes that PNTL does not yet have an adequate policy to ensure that it can fulfil its security mission and responsibilities.

Death in the detention cell: suicide or homicide?

Recently, the death of a police suspect by hanging in his cell has resulted in great uncertainty and loss of confidence towards state institutions, particularly among the victim’s family. From FM’s perspective, it is unacceptable that such an incident could have occurred in the security institution’s workplace. Therefore, we ask the General Commander of PNTL to investigate this incident thoroughly using scientific methods, so that the truth about this incident can be determined.

Furthermore, FM notes that PNTL has a mission and responsibility to defend democratic legality, guarantee security for people and property, and protect citizens’ rights and liberties according to the Constitution and Laws. Thus, the methods used by the police must also follow the Constitution and Laws and avoid threats and killings. Based on our analysis of this case, FM sees that it not only represents a threat to citizen security, but also directly contradicts PNTL’s own mission according to the RDTL Constitution and PNTL Organic Law.

No one should die in a police cell, and FM sees that this incident lacks logic or reason. If police officers followed applicable rules and procedures, it is impossible that someone could die by hanging in the cell. Therefore, FM asks PNTL’s leadership: how could a suspect die in such a violent manner in a police cell? Did the police fail to control the detention area? How did the object which seems to have caused the person’s death end up in the cell?

Based on this case – as well as numerous violations of rules which have occurred – FM is concerned that many PNTL members lack discipline and respect for their institution’s security mission. This mission requires that all PNTL members abide by applicable rules and procedures, which exist to protect the security and rights of Timorese citizens (and foreigners residing in Timor-Leste). Such incidents make us question whether PNTL will be able to fulfil its mission of providing security to all citizens in the future.

For years, FM has raised concerns about poor discipline among PNTL members. Discipline and compliance with laws and rules must be the fundamental basis of police activities. Unfortunately, there are many cases of violations committed by PNTL members. PNTL actions against community members and leaders, medics, students, journalists, F-FDTL members and PNTL’s own members have resulted in many violations and crimes, with the incident under discussion being the most recent example. When we look at this long history of violations, FM is unsure about the commitment of PNTL’s General Command to PNTL’s mission as outlined in the Organic Law and RDTL Constitution.

Regarding the recent case of death in the police cell, according to FM’s monitoring over several years, this is the first such case which has occurred since Timor-Leste’s independence. Therefore, FM repeats our call for a thorough investigation of this case to establish what exactly occurred inside the cell, as well as in the PNTL work area. FM also calls on PNTL’s institutional leadership to take this case seriously, and to rigorously apply sanctions according to disciplinary regulations, or to open criminal prosecution if the investigation raises suspicion of criminal activity.

This case is a major challenge to PNTL’s new leadership. It should also serve as an important lesson to the institutional leadership that rules must be imposed on PNTL members, and that rigorous measures must be taken against members who fail to follow laws and regulations. In this way, citizens will not be threatened or killed while all people will be equal under the Law.

Finally, FM offers the follow recommendations to decision makers:

  1. PNTL General Command must carry out thorough scientific investigation to determine whether the death which occurred in the case resulted from suicide or homicide.
  2. PNTL General Command must take rigorous disciplinary action against PNTL members who violate laws and regulations. Moreover, due to controversial nature of this case, it is important for the public to see that PNTL has taken responsibility and is not just trying to protect itself. Therefore, the processes in the case must be implemented transparently, both the disciplinary case and the investigation into the nature of the death which occurred in the cell.
  3. For Timor-Leste to comply with its human rights commitments, each detention cell – including temporary cells and cells inside prisons – must meet the following standards:
    1. Adequate ventilation and sunlight
    2. Adequate conditions for resting, including a chair or bench
    3. Adequate conditions for using the toilet
  4. PNTL General Command must evaluate the performance of PNTL members and the progress of training related discipline and procedures, especially procedures for the treatment of suspects and prisoners.
  5. PNTL General Command is responsible for the work of every PNTL member. FM reminds PNTL’s leadership and all PNTL members to serve with heart, not just words, and to serve with love, not emotion.


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