Lindsay Murdoch – East Timor's prime minister has asked a Dili court not send two journalists to jail in a controversial defamation case he brought against them that was condemned by human rights and press freedom organisations.
"I consider that, once the truth of the facts has been restored... defendants should not be sentenced as proposed by the Public Prosecution Service," Rui Maria de Araujo told the court in a letter, according to the Portuguese newsagency Lusa.
Mr Araujo made the intervention on the eve of a court on Thursday sentencing Raimundos Oki and Lourenco Martins Vicente, his former editor at the Timor Post, on charges of "slanderous denunciation."
Timorese journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, the Australian journalist's union MEAA, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the South East Asia Journalist Unions have backed protests this week against Mr Araujo's pursuit of charges against the journalists that raised serious questions about freedom of expression in the country, one of only a few in south-east Asia with a free press.
Mr Oki, a 32 year-old freelance journalist, has been preparing to go to jail after prosecutors pushed for a one year jail sentence for him and a two-year suspended sentence for Mr Vicente.
Jim Nolan, a Sydney barrister and legal adviser to the International Federation of Journalists, who has travelled to Dili to observe the case, said convicting the men will stain the reputation of democratic East Timor.
"The case is all the more grave as it involves an article which attacked the prime minister," he said. "Any decision will also be an encouragement to authoritarian governments in the region which has been marked by increasing attacks upon the press."
Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand are among countries that have imposed harsh restrictions on journalists.
Leading East Timor journalist Jose Belo said government leaders in Dili are using laws they produced to oppress the media. He said if Mr Oki and Mr Vicente go to jail "that's the beginning of a new era of the country's leaders killing the free press."
The charges relate to a 2015 article that claimed Mr Araujo, when he was an adviser to be finance minister, had recommended a winning bid for a government contract but misnamed the company.
A week later, Mr Oki corrected the report and apologised. But in January 2016 Mr Araujo – who had become prime minister the year before – filed a criminal defamation suit and has refused since then to back down.
The charges prevented Mr Oki, one of East Timor's most promising journalists, from accepting an Australian scholarship that would have seen him gaining experience in the newsrooms of Fairfax Media and the ABC.