GLENO, East Timor — Gastão Salsinha, retired rebel and failed assassin, says it is probably politics that explain why he is free to roam East Timor’s cloud-covered hinterlands rather than languish in prison.
Mr. Salsinha was the most senior of 24 rebels convicted this year of trying to murder the president and the prime minister in twin attacks in 2008.
But even as a court in Dili, the capital, sentenced him in March to more than 10 years in prison, Mr. Salsinha, a former army lieutenant, looked forward to certain release. President José Ramos-Horta — who was left bleeding and near death with gunshot wounds outside his home — had promised forgiveness.
In August he delivered, commuting the sentences of the 23 rebels in custody. The opposition, rights groups and the United Nations reacted with dismay, saying the decision undermined the rule of law.
Even Mr. Salsinha, sitting outside a relative’s home in the hilly western district of Ermera, said that the president probably had overstepped his constitutional power to grant commutations. “But because there’s been political intervention, anything can happen,” he said, smiling shyly.
To critics, the release of Mr. Salsinha and his men is the latest example of crime without punishment in East Timor. Since his election in 2007, Mr. Ramos-Horta has drastically increased pardons and commutations, prompting criticism that he has undermined efforts to punish those responsible for crimes during Indonesia’s bloody 24-year occupation, as well as during instability since independence in 2002.
But for the government, and Mr. Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace laureate, the pardons are about mercy and reconciliation in Asia’s newest and poorest country. With giant Indonesia just across the border, and local divisions still strong, there is another calculation, critics say: a blank slate can buy peace and stability.
According to the United Nations mission in East Timor, he has issued 217 pardons or commutations since 2007. His predecessor, Xanana Gusmão, issued a total of 44 in the previous three years. Mr. Gusmão is now prime minister and was also a target of the 2008 attacks.
The litany of suffering in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, is a long one. As many as 180,000 people died after Indonesia’s 1975 invasion, including about 1,400 in militia violence surrounding an independence referendum in 1999. Three of Mr. Ramos-Horta’s brothers and one sister were killed in the occupation. Fighting between rival factions of the security forces, set off by the firing of 600 soldiers, killed at least 37 people and drove 150,000 from their homes in 2006 — and spawned the rebel movement that shot Mr. Ramos-Horta.
In a casual interview as he was strolled outside his office building in Dili, Mr. Ramos-Horta said that in the case of Mr. Salsinha’s men, forgiveness, and preventing a return to instability, trumped punitive justice. They were victims of the breakdown in the political system, he said, a crisis not of their making and for which they should not be punished.
He said he rejected the argument “that if you forgive people who have been tried, who have faced the whole justice process, and who faced two, three years in prison, you foster a kind of impunity.”
“You can say that when you put up that question to me, I laugh,” he said.
The United Nations, however, is not laughing. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in his report on East Timor to the Security Council last month, said the rebels’ commutations could endanger future investigations into war crimes and undermine “efforts to combat impunity.”
Particularly egregious, the United Nations says, was the arrest and release in 2009 of Maternus Bere, a pro-Indonesian militia leader indicted by the United Nations-backed Serious Crimes Unit in the 1999 massacre of more than 30 people at a church in the town of Suai.
Captured by the police after crossing over from Indonesia, Mr. Bere was released by government order. Louis Gentile, the local representative of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, said the government had succumbed to Indonesian pressure and violated its own criminal code.
The Timorese Constitution grants the president the right to issue pardons and commutations “after consultation with the government.” But critics said the Bere decision was illegal because he was released before trial, instead of being pardoned or having his sentence commuted afterward. The decision led to a no-confidence motion in the government, which was defeated on party lines.
Mr. Ramos-Horta said the decision was made because East Timor had decided “to close a chapter” on the 1999 violence by signing off with Indonesia on a Commission of Truth and Friendship report in 2008. That report acknowledged Indonesian blame for much of the violence but has been criticized for failing to revive calls for an international tribunal or bring to justice more than 300 war crimes suspects living freely in Indonesia.
But for Mr. Gentile, trading justice for stability may mean East Timor could get neither. “If you look at examples from around the world, a lot of people would argue that forgiveness and reconciliation with no element of justice will leave, certainly, a large number of victims — if not the leadership — feeling that they need to take revenge or that their call for justice was not heard, and they will bide their time to take justice into their own hands,” he said.
The release of Mr. Salsinha and his men means no one is now in prison in connection with the 2006 crisis and subsequent rebellion. Although those commutations were legal, rights advocates say Mr. Ramos-Horta’s actions weaken the justice system.
“For us, this is a direct effort to minimize the meaning and essence of national law in Timor-Leste,” said Luis de Oliveira Sampaio, the director of the Judicial System Monitoring Program, a nongovernmental organization in Dili, referring to the country by its official name.
Up in the hills of Ermera, Mr. Salsinha said he thought his release was a step toward helping heal the wounds of 2006. But, unlike reconciliation processes in other countries, his release required no admission of guilt.
He maintains that his group never intended to kill the country’s leaders and just wanted a “meeting” with Mr. Ramos-Horta.
If anyone should be punished, he said, it should be members of the political elite, whose squabbling set off the crisis. “The officials are like Pilate, they’ve all washed their hands,” he said. “It was only the little people, the followers, that went to jail.”
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