Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Former minister guilty of arming Timor hit squads

Former minister guilty of arming Timor hit squads

EAST Timor's former interior minister has been found guilty on five charges relating to arming hit squads to eliminate government opponents during civil unrest last year.

A panel of three international judges yesterday found Rogerio Lobato guilty on four charges of manslaughter and one count of unlawfully using firearms to disturb public order. He was sentenced to 7½ years in jail.

Chief judge Ivo Rosa said Lobato had been "a member of government and a democratic society but he has behaved in an anti-social and anti-democratic way" by contributing to the fledgling nation's instability and violence.

The charges were laid following allegations on Australia's ABC TV after about 600 East Timorese soldiers known as "petitioners" deserted, accusing their commanders of racial discrimination.

ABC reporter Liz Jackson produced documents alleging Lobato and then prime minister Mari Alkatiri had given weapons to civilians to kill members of the petitioners group as dissent worsened in May last year.

In October, a United Nations report on the violence recommended that Lobato be prosecuted, along with the main protagonists in the conflict, from both the government and its opponents and including fugitive army officer Alfredo Reinado.

The East Timorese capital of Dili was quiet but tense ahead of the Lobato verdict, with police tightening security.

Earlier this week, supporters of rebel leader Reinado burnt tyres and threw stones to protest against a weekend raid by Australian troops on the fugitive's hide-out.

"The situation is getting normal. Government vehicles have cleared the locations (of roadblocks)," a witness in Dili said.

He said New Zealand troops, part of an international peacekeeping force, were patrolling areas considered riot-prone.

Australian soldiers continued to comb the southern part of East Timor for Reinado, who escaped Sunday's pre-dawn assault by Australian forces. Five people died in the raid.

Britain has issued a new travel advice for East Timor warning against all travel there and advising British nationals in the country to leave.

"The security situation in East Timor remains uncertain and could deteriorate at short notice," the advisory said.

New Zealand also issued a travel warning. "There is extreme risk to your security in all parts of Timor-Leste and we advise against all travel. The security situation remains extremely volatile and could deteriorate further with little warning," the Government said.

Australia and the US issued similar warnings, and Australia is to evacuate non-emergency diplomatic staff and families.


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