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Analysis: Tough task to tackle corruption in East Timor

The new anti-corruption commission will need to take action — and fast — in order to justify its existence.

Farmers prepare rice seedlings in the Manatuto district of East Timor, April 1, 2010. (Lirio Da Fonseca/Reuters)

DILI, East Timor — Over the past year or so in East Timor, a slew of top officials have been implicated in corruption scandals.

The justice minister was charged with influencing government contracts; the finance minister was criticized for allegedly giving jobs to her friends; and one of the country’s deputy prime ministers was accused of misusing power by giving his wife a well-paid U.N. job.

The list goes on. The ruling coalition maintains that these allegations are based on half-truths and misinformation, while opposition lawmakers accuse the government of whitewashing the issues. Stuck in the middle are the country’s 1.1 million people, who often don’t know what to think.

The tiny nation of East Timor has only been formally independent since 2002 after a savage occupation by the Indonesian army that caused more than 100,000 deaths and in 1999 saw the destruction of much of the country’s infrastructure.

Many are hopeful that the country has finally broken its cycle of falling back into strife every two years, as the past 25 months have seen the country's longest period of peace and stability in recent memory.

But, as the government plans to up spending more than $5 billion of oil wealth, corruption has become a hot topic in the capital, Dili. The government is under pressure to push on with development in key areas, such as infrastructure and education, while retaining the trust of the people in the face of fiery political bickering and a gaggle of gung-ho local journalists.

In an effort to show they are cleaning up their act, the government has established a new Anti-Corruption Commission. The commission will deal solely with corruption cases, which used to fall under the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman for Human Rights.

The commission must now achieve concrete results — and fast — to justify its existence. The stakes are high in the run up to a general election in two years. Unless they see action and closure on the cases they read about in the press, the people of East Timor will be left in the dark.

None of the recent corruption allegations have been proven in court and each “scandal” has fizzled out.

Sebastiao Ximenes, East Timor’s Ombudsman for Human Rights, said from his office in Dili that he handed over 28 cases of corruption during his first term to the prosecutor general’s office, but not one has made it to court yet.

He attributes this oversight to an ill-equipped justice system that is struggling to get through thousands of backlogged cases.

“We cannot expect more from this commission if we don’t change or make a new strategy to develop the prosecutor general’s office, in particular how to provide more resources like human resources or maybe financial resources, recruit more prosecutors and provide special training on corruption issues,” he said.

The Anti-Corruption Commission must now pick up where Ximenes left off, but it won’t be an easy task.