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East Timor government to sack foreign judges, advisers

ABC Radio Australia - October 27, 2014

Sara Everingham – East Timor, a country that counts Australia as a major donor, is sacking all the foreign judges and advisers in its justice system.

The decision was made in a closed session of parliament in Dili on Friday night amid concerns about the judiciary's handling of a bitter dispute between East Timor and oil companies operating in the Timor Sea.

The resources companies, such as ConocoPhillips, have been challenging $360 million in tax payments and in the Dili courts the cases have not been going East Timor's way.

The Timorese government had criticised the way the public prosecutor handled the cases and argued the courts had misunderstood the country's tax laws.

"There has been some issues regarding decisions that were made that did not comply with our laws," said Joao Goncalves, a former government minister who works in the office of prime minister Xanana Gusmao.

The parliamentary vote to sack the judges was not unanimous, with some members of the opposition Fretilin party voting against it. Fretilin party member Estanislau da Silva said he was concerned the decision would be seen as "interference in the justice system".

Sydney-based lawyer Warren Wright, who worked in East Timor for the United Nations, shared the concerns. "My own opinion is that on the face of it, it constitutes a violation of the separation of powers, and an undue interference by the legislature in the judicial system," he said.

Mr Wright said the decision to remove the judges would also strain East Timor's justice sector.

"Up to 12 per cent of the judges in East Timor are from foreign jurisdictions, and removing all of those judges suddenly, of course it's going to have some rather concerning implications for the human resources aspect of the judicial sector."

But Mr Goncalves insisted the resolution was justified. "Of course, you know, for the government and for the national parliament of course to act on that," he said.

East Timor may seek NSW help to overhaul justice system

As a young developing nation, East Timor relied on international staff to help establish its judicial system. But the parliament's resolution said the international staff lacked capacity to do their jobs, let alone to train and empower East Timorese judicial officers.

The East Timor government was cancelling their contracts, whether they were judges from Portuguese-speaking countries or international advisers working in bodies such as the anti-corruption commission.

"This is correct, yes all the international judges and advisers within the judicial system, which means with the courts, the prosecutor's office and everything that is the judicial system," Mr Goncalves said.

He said East Timor could seek help from bodies such as the NSW Judicial Commission to help with an audit of the justice system.

Earlier this year, the outgoing president of East Timor's highest court, Claudio Ximenes, raised concerns about the judicial system.

AM obtained his resignation letter. He wrote that what was happening constituted a violation of the principles on which justice was founded.

He argued that a corruption case involving a government minister was compromised because judges were asked to make assessments of their own decisions.

Source: http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/2014-10-27/east-timor-government-to-sack-foreign-judges-advisers/1383089