The Case of Arnolfo Teves, Jr.: A Serious Test for Timor-Leste’s Political and Judicial Systems

The Case of Arnolfo Teves, Jr.: A Serious Test for Timor-Leste’s Political and Judicial Systems post thumbnail image

Photo: PCIC

The case of Arnulfo Tevez, Jr., a Filipino politician and businessman wanted in connection with the assassination of a political rival and eight others in the Philippines, has stirred significant controversy in Timor-Leste. Tevez’ arrival in the country in late April 2023, followed by a series of legal and diplomatic maneuvers, has raised important questions about the integrity of Timor-Leste’s political and criminal justice systems. This article describes the case’s background and development, and outlines Fundasaun Mahein’s (FM) concerns about its broader political and security implications.

Upon Teves’ arrival at Dili airport by private jet, FM has obtained information that he was greeted by a high-level state official and provided with an escort. Subsequently, Teves’ family joined him in Timor-Leste, and he rented several luxury properties in Dili. Tevez then applied for political asylum; this request was rejected by the Court of Appeal in May 2023, leading to a 5-day notice to leave the country. In the same month, Interpol issued a Blue Notice, an international alert for individuals wanted for serious crimes.

In August 2023, Tevez was officially charged with murder in the Philippines, followed by an arrest warrant issued in September. During these legal proceedings, Tevez remained under the protection of private security in Timor-Leste. Interpol issued a Red Notice in February 2024, equivalent to an international arrest warrant, and the Scientific and Criminal Investigation Police (PCIC) then arrested Tevez as he was playing golf in Areia Branca on 21 March 2024. Since then, the suspect has been held in Becora prison, awaiting further legal proceedings.

Allegations have since emerged that a member of Timor-Leste’s security forces either accepted or demanded a bribe from family members of Tevez in exchange for enhanced security during his time in prison. According to reports, the internal investigation process is ongoing; however, as far as FM is aware, the bribery case has not yet been referred to the general prosecution service.

The Presidents of Timor-Leste and the Philippines have reportedly held discussions about the Tevez case, including how best to ensure his transfer to the Philippines to face trial. President Ramos Horta has publicly expressed his desire that the case be resolved “quickly.” However, the absence of an extradition treaty between the two countries has complicated this process. A delegation from the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) headed by NBI chief Medardo de Lemos travelled to Timor-Leste in April 2024 in an attempt to secure Tevez’ extradition, but later left empty-handed. International commentaries have since raised doubts about the possibility of quickly and easily resolving the case.

FM hopes for a speedy resolution of this serious criminal case. However, beyond the technicalities of the legal process, FM is deeply concerned about the actions of some members of Timor-Leste’s political class in this case, which reveal serious weaknesses in our country’s political and criminal justice systems. First, the manner in which Tevez was initially received in Timor-Leste raises concerns about potential connections between Tevez and Timorese politicians, and, consequently, a willingness among state officials to provide support and protection to powerful individuals facing serious criminal charges. The fact that Tevez was met personally by a senior state official at the airport and provided with an escort is extremely disturbing. Public information about Tevez’ past activities indicate that he has cultivated relationships with political and business leaders in Timor-Leste for many years, further indicating that his high-level connections are complicating the swift resolution of the case.

FM observes that there is a discrepancy between the state’s treatment of high-profile suspects like Tevez and its response to legal violations committed by ordinary citizens. For example, as the Tevez case has unfolded, the Government has been aggressively demolishing “illegal” houses and commercial buildings around Dili. Security forces have been mobilized to help enforce eviction and demolition notices, as the Government’s actions have been met with widespread protests because citizens are losing their homes and livelihoods. On the other hand, Tevez, a well-connected and wealthy foreign citizen facing serious criminal charges was welcomed into the country by state officials and provided with security and access to luxurious properties. He was eventually arrested based on an international warrant, even though he has been ordered to leave the country by Timorese courts almost a year prior. Despite direct communication between the heads of state of the two countries, Timor-Leste continues to face “difficulties” deporting or extraditing Tevez. The resulting image is that of a State which appears to be willing to mobilize resources and security to ruthlessly implement laws being violated by “small people”, but when a well-connected individual such as Tevez is wanted for serious crimes, it becomes complicated and difficult to deport him, despite a Timorese court having already ordered him to leave the country.

Timor-Leste is still trying to develop its reputation as a democratic country under the rule of law, including by maintaining good relations with neighbors and partners and attempting to join ASEAN. FM therefore asks: what message are Timorese politicians sending to international partners and observers by welcoming and providing security to a foreign politician wanted for such a serious crime as assassination of a political rival? Furthermore, what message does it send to the people of Timor-Leste that a high-profile suspect received special treatment from the state, while ordinary people are suddenly treated as criminals for building “illegal” houses, after zero state action for decades to control such informal settlements?

In addition to these grave political implications, FM is also extremely concerned about the message that this case sends to criminals and criminal organizations operating in this region. Timor-Leste is already well-known as a country with limited capacity to detect and prevent organized criminal activities. Due to its high-profile nature, the Tevez case has been widely publicized, which has likely attracted the attention of criminal groups. As a result of this case, organized crime activities may well increase in this country. Furthermore, the fact that a politician who is suspected of serious crimes and subject of Interpol notices was welcomed by politicians in this country sends a dangerous message to other wealthy criminals, namely that if you are in danger of being arrested, with the right connections you can buy safety in Timor-Leste. For all we know, other criminals are already in the process of buying influence among Timorese state officials as “insurance” against future cases which will be brought against.

FM has written many times about the dangers of the Rule of the Deal which dominates decision making in this country. We were therefore pleased to see that the IX Government pledged to guarantee the “democratic rule of law,” something which FM has advocated for many years. FM also recognizes the actions of Timor-Leste’s courts which rejected Tevez’ request for political asylum, and of PCIC which effectively executed the Interpol Red Notice. Sadly, the actions of some politicians related to the Tevez case suggests that Timor-Leste’s justice system is not functioning according to the rule of law, but rather is influenced by wealth and political connections.

Ensuring that Timor-Leste is a democratic country based on the rule of law means that all criminals are held accountable, irrespective of their background. FM repeats that the failure to tackle elite impunity not only erodes trust in the state, but also jeopardizes national security and undermines Timor-Leste’s standing on the international stage. Protecting wealthy criminals also risks attracting organized criminal groups to operate in our country, which our criminal justice system is ill-equipped to manage. Therefore, as policy makers navigate the Tevez case, FM urges them to reflect on their commitment to upholding the principles of justice and accountability, safeguarding the integrity of Timor-Leste’s institutions, and enforcing the rule of law. Justice means that the law applies to all equally, regardless of status, connections or wealth; justice must be done in the Tevez case in order to send a message that the state will not tolerate the presence of international criminals.

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