When Timor-Leste passed the Law Against Domestic Violence (LADV), victims and advocates hailed the fact that victims would have an option other than the traditional justice system, which provides an animal or some money as compensation in exchange for the victim not taking the case forward to pursuing further justice. Yet, what a recent domestic violence victim experienced in the Dili District Court was as if she was back in this traditional system, but with none of the convenience or efficiency of that system.
Getting to court for a domestic violence victim in Timor-Leste is a huge undertaking. Victims must first have the courage to speak out against and potentially leave their attacker—a family member with whom they share a past and many connections. If they do so, they may face retaliation and/or ostracism. Then, the victim must file a case and spend their own time and money (which they often do not have) to get to and from the police station, meetings with attorneys, and court. All the while, they may be threatened by the suspect or forced to continue living with them due to family dynamics and economic dependency. Despite having protection orders available under the law (LADV Art. 37), no such orders are known to have been issued and much skepticism remains regarding whether police would enforce them. This instability may last months or even a year, due to backlog and inefficiency in placing cases on the court docket.
Facing these odds, it is no wonder that so few cases are filed in Timor-Leste. Victims generally prefer to utilize the familiar, expeditious and free local justice system, though it has fewer protections for victims’ rights. Moreover, given these challenges, it is miraculous when a case finally makes it in front of a judge. Thus, court officers in Timor-Leste need to be particularly sensitive to the challenges of victims when facing a domestic violence case. Given the long path a victim takes to reach the court, court officers must not hinder the process.
Unfortunately, the court officers at the recent hearing in Dili did not recognize this long struggle and the courage it takes for a victim to charge and confront her attacker. In the courtroom at the Tribunál Districtál Dili, the judge treated the case in a manner reminiscent of the traditional system. A manner in which the victim’s life and dignity are for sale for the price of ONE cow. Sitting in the courtroom, the judge asked the victim once whether she would like to proceed. The victim responded to “ba oin” (go forward). Insensitive to the resolve it took for a victim to respond as such, the judge reminded her that she would be going ahead with a case that would “send her [attacker] to Becora [prison].” He then asked her again if she was sure she wanted to proceed and whether she would like 5 minutes to think about it. In the 5 minute discussion she had with the prosecutor—a man who did not intervene to protect the case despite his obligation to do so, but instead also encouraged the victim to use mediation—the victim’s resolve was turned, the strength it took to confront her previous means of support and close family member deteriorated, the months of waiting and the dollars spent traveling to law and police offices wasted, and the legitimacy of the Timor-Leste justice system in responding to endemic domestic violence eroded.
When the case continued after this 5-minute recess, the victim returned and agreed to resolve the case with mediation. She asked for one cow from her attacker, who promptly argued against the fairness of this request—unappreciative of the kindness his victim had given him. With that, the judge adjourned the court and the victim left having incited the anger of her family for wasting their time and money utilizing the formal system, and with nothing more to show than what she would have likely received had she used the traditional system in the first place. While the public crime clause in the LADV (Art. 36) gives victims special protection by providing that their case cannot be closed, where a case is charged as a semi-public crime (such as where no “family economy” is found, as in this case), the case can be closed with the victim’s consent.
This case demonstrates that the formal protection system is lacking an important understanding of what it takes for a victim to confront his/her attacker, and how the formal system must distinguish itself from the traditional system in order to be effective. If it does not develop this sensitivity and, instead, continues to act as the traditional system would, it risks losing its legitimacy as well as placing numerous victims at risk of being re-victimized.
Ba Futuru, a Timorese NGO, has been working on these issues since November 2011 under its Empowering Women and Establishing Grassroots Protection Networks project. The project, which runs for three years, is funded by the European Union for nearly 300,000 Euro and Australian AID for approximately 70,000 USD. The project aims to combat violence against vulnerable populations in Timor-Leste and increase access to justice through a three-pronged approach: training local leaders on gender issues, conflict resolution, child protection, legal frameworks and referral pathways; empowering teams of local women, through training and support, to serve as protection agents; and producing annual policy recommendations and conducting advocacy for changes needed in the formal protection system.