East Timor: Who shot J R Horta?

DILI - Turbulent East Timor may go through its own Watergate, or at least a watershed political moment depending on which version of the 11 February assassination attempt on President Jose Ramos Horta finally emerges as the truth. Conflicting accounts, questionable evidence and reversed recollections continue to cloud an alleged assassination attempt on the president and prime minister that sent a popular rebel leader to an early grave.  
By Simon Roughneen, Asia Times

East Timor's post-independence politics have confounded outside observers, and for the most part the Timorese themselves. Simultaneously transparent and opaque, what was thought to be a mono-cultural, impoverished, Western-backed, state-building poster-child has morphed into a divided half-island, with obscure tribal-linguistic rivalries once considered dormant, since stirred by political rivalries and manifested in quasi-mysterious gangs.

The Timorese political elite remain at odds along familiar regime lines, demarcations so old that these rivalries were, broadly speaking, established when Richard Nixon was still in the White House and more sharply honed in the 1980s - when soap opera addicts spent months wondering who shot J R Ewing, the fictional Texan oil mogul in Dallas.

But East Timor may now have its own Watergate, or at least a watershed political moment depending on which version of the events of 11 February finally emerges as the truth. That day, Dili's usual idyllic dawn was shattered by shots ringing out along the seaside valleys just a few miles east of the city, close to the white sand beaches favored by Timor's affluent expatriate community.

In what was regarded as either failed assassination attempts on President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, or perhaps instead a meeting-gone-awry between Ramos-Horta and former Timorese soldier Alfredo Reinado, the shoot-outs put the president in the hospital for two months and left rebel leader-cum-assassin Reinado in an early grave.

Reinado led the Petitioners, a group of disenchanted soldiers from the western half of the country who felt discriminated against by army top brass from the country's eastern regions. Prior to being dismissed from the armed services, he was pivotal in a chain of violent events in 2006 that led to over 100,000 Timorese being driven from their homes and the resignation of then-prime minister Mari Alkatiri. The army split, the police force disintegrated and Reinado took to the hills.

Some of Reinado's colleagues that fateful February morning have offered confusing and contradictory versions of what led up to the incident and what finally happened when their flamboyant front man died. Ramos-Horta himself has revised his initial recollection - that one of the rebels, Marcel Caetano, fired the bullets that almost killed him - after visiting the imprisoned would-be assassin in Dili's Becora jailhouse.

So who really shot Ramos-Horta and why? Considering the political machinations that preceded the shootings, it now seems unlikely it was Reinado who pulled the trigger. Ramos-Horta had repeatedly made peace offerings to the rebel, who had been dismissed by the Australian-led international forces and the ruling Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) coalition headed by Ramos-Horta's ally Gusmao, as a de facto criminal with no political status.

Another rumor doing the rounds was that, behind the scenes, Ramos-Horta had given up on the recalcitrant fugitive and that Reinado had set out in a huff for Dili to confront the president. That would have been suicidal unless it was followed by a coup attempt, hence the apparent simultaneous hit on Gusmao led by Gastinho Salsinha, Reinado's deputy. However, that too now seems unlikely given the lack of men and hardware at Reinado's disposal that morning.

In any case, Ramos-Horta survived, Reinado died, and the political fallout was until now minimal. Then, 'The Australian' newspaper revealed it had reviewed the top-secret report drafted by Muhumad Nurul Islam, Timor's leading forensic pathologist, saying it indicated that Reinado and his sidekick Leopoldinho Exposto were shot at close or point-blank range in an execution style that does not tally with the prevailing shoot-out version of events - namely, that Reinado was killed at a range of 10 meters or so by one of Ramos-Horta's snipers.

Nurul reported that Reinado had blackening and burning around each of his four bullet wounds and said he had been shot with a high-velocity rifle "at close range". Nurul added that Exposto was shot squarely in the back of his head, also at close range. David Ranson from the Victoria Institute of Forensics was quoted by The Australian saying that the blackening and burning mentioned in Nurul's report only appears when a gun is fired at almost point-blank range.

Ramos-Horta later raged in a Timorese newspaper against The Australian newspaper and the forensic scientists that the newspaper consulted. Attorney General Longinus Montero disputed The Australian version of events, telling reporters in Dili that "It's not right, that information isn't right. The case is still under investigation." He added that the results could not yet be made public.

Apart from the apparent contradictions, much of what apparently transpired on February 11 seems strange. Most glaring was why, with gunfire ringing around his house, Ramos-Horta returned home, or more to the point, why his security detail let him do so. Much has been made of the delay in the army and police response to the shooting, and it appears that Reinado's body was moved around the crime scene, and that police present even answered his mobile phone as he lay dead.

Confusion and conspiracy

Some of Timor's other political grandees appear set to capitalize on the confusion. Mario Carrascalao, a key member of the ruling coalition, said on August 17 that "we still don't know what happened". "For me, all the stories that have been told here - I don't trust them," he said. He called for the immediate release of the prosecutor-general's report into the attacks and the establishment of an independent inquiry into "what happened and more importantly why it happened".

Prime Minister Gusmao has so far resisted calls for any independent inquiry. Before the February shootings, Ramos-Horta's house stood alone at the corner of the route heading uphill from Dili and east to Timor's second city Baucau, no more than a few feet from the roadside, and with some of the gardens easily visible from inside cars and trucks winding uphill to breathtaking views of the Wetar Strait.

The standard version of events, summed up by James Dunn in a paper written for the Australian Human rights Council, took a best-case view that Reinado did not actually intend to kill Ramos-Horta during the fateful encounter: "Almost certainly it was a botched attempt by the rebel leader, Alfredo Reinado, to corner the president and seek further assurances that the proposed surrender conditions, culminating in his pardon, would in fact be carried out."

The report continued: "The plan went tragically wrong because Reinado's target was not there. The President was not at home, but out on a very early beach walk. Reinado's men disarmed the guards and occupied the residence grounds, but two soldiers turned up unexpectedly and shot Reinado and one of his men at what was apparently point blank range. Hearing the shooting, Ramos-Horta hurried back to the residence where he was shot by one of Reinado's men, a rebel enraged at the killing of their leader. It is likely that this angry reaction caused another rebel party to fire on Prime Minister Xanana some time later."

Still, the rumor mill went into overdrive after the shootings. Questions have arisen about the provenance of a US$700,000 bank account in Australia that Reinado allegedly had access to. Other sketchy details surround the links between the rebels and Joao Tavares, who was once described by the UN as the top militia commander in East Timor in 1999. Three rebels were arrested in April in Indonesia-ruled West Timor while staying at his personal residence.

Reinado had a fake Indonesian identification on his person when shot and, bizarrely, Ramos-Horta later railed against Desi Anwar, a well-known Indonesian broadcast journalist who interviewed the fugitive in Indonesia in 2007, for facilitating Reinado's clandestine cross-border travels. In January, an obscure group linked to Reinado known as the Movement for National Unity and Justice (MUNJ) withdrew from moribund talks between the government and the rebels, a failure that Ramos-Horta and Gusmao blamed on Reinado's girlfriend, Angie Pires.

Depending on which rebel account you believe, however, MUNJ representatives were with Reinado right up to February 10, allegedly supplying the vehicles that took the rebels to the capital's outskirts the day of the reputed assassination attempt.
Another notable and as-yet-unexplained detail emerged from a contact number found on the dead Reinado's mobile phone under the name "Hercul". That's led some to believe the Jakarta-based, Timor-born Hercules Rozario Marca was in contact with Reinado prior to the events at Ramos-Horta's residence. Weeks later two of the rebels linked to Reinado were arrested at Marca's home.

Marca visited Dili in late January and met with Reinado, according to Gusmao's AMP coalition partner and former East Timor governor Mario Carrascalao. During his January visit, Marca also reportedly discussed investment opportunities with various Timorese officials, including both Ramos-Horta and Gusmao, according to the Sun Herald.

With government approval, Marca is now primed to invest in a new swimming pool along Dili's docklands, across from the Parliament House, a remarkable rehabilitation for a man that once allegedly provided muscle to Jakarta's attempts to cow East Timor's independence activists. He has joined other former Jakarta businessmen once linked to Indonesian strongman Suharto who are now cutting government-brokered business deals in Dili, including one for a new casino.

Some say it is no coincidence that those deals were completed around the time an Indonesian-Timorese Commission fudged issues of justice and accountability for crimes committed during Jakarta's brutal quarter-century occupation of the former Portuguese colony, to the chagrin of many Timorese.

The Commission on Truth and Friendship (CTF) was established in 2005 by the Timorese and Indonesian governments to examine violence perpetrated by Jakarta's troops and its Timorese proxies during the 1999 violence that marred the vote for independence from Indonesia.

However, the CTF had no powers to prosecute, prompting criticism that it served to whitewash atrocities. Its final report, issued on July 15, concluded that Indonesia also had responsibility for gross human rights violations, such as murder, rape, torture, illegal detention and forced mass deportations, that were committed by militias with the support and participation of Indonesian institutions and their members.

While Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressed his "deepest regret" for the victims, he quickly dismissed the notion that those responsible should be brought to justice.

After the April shooting, before being released from hospital, Ramos-Horta said Indonesian officers should "come clean" and acknowledge their responsibility for 1999 violence, and that both countries would need to read the commission's report calmly and "see whether we need to take further steps to address the events of 1999".

Earlier, the apparently traumatized Ramos-Horta had visions of a crowd trying to suffocate him, and separately he alleged Indonesian involvement in the assassination attempt on his life. Yudhoyono rebuked that claim, and by the time the CTF report came out Ramos-Horta had completely changed his tune, saying that the victims' legacy would be used to build stronger links between the two countries and that Timor would not be seeking an international tribunal to try those responsible. He was joined by Gusmao in declaring, "We are determined to bring a closure to a chapter of our recent past."

Dormant lightning rod

Reinado's cult-like status led some to fear he could be seen as a martyr and his death become a lightening rod for political discontent. An Australian-led attempt to apprehend him at his southern redoubt in Same in 2007 led to riots in Dili, as his supporters torched buildings and cars. But Reinado's cause seemed to die with its leader, at least in the public eye, although the east-west regional divide inside the Timorese army that prompted Reinado to rebel in the first place remains unsolved.

With illiteracy rates at 60% and child malnutrition 40%, many people are wondering when Timor's some $3 billion in oil revenues, accrued since the establishment of a national petroleum fund in 2005, will start to filter down to the impoverished grassroots. East Timor is listed by the UN as the poorest country per capita in the Asia-Pacific region. More political strife means that potentially lucrative tourism from Australia seems unlikely to take off anytime soon, despite Timor being a closer, cleaner and relatively untouched alternative to Bali, a line Gusmao peddled while on an official visit to Australia last week.

Instead, soaring food and fuel prices are making life even harder for Timor's poor. An official move to give 100,000 hectares of land to the production of bio-fuel crops in a furtive deal with the Indonesian company GT Leste Biotech irked many, not least because it was brokered in January but did not become public until June. That controversial deal with the island state's former occupier was followed by the arrest of around 60 students protesting a decision to buy cars for each of the Timor government's 65 MPs.

The run of government slip-ups only adds to the growing divide between East Timor's politicians and its people, particularly among the restless and unemployed youth. How more contradictory versions of Ramos-Horta's shooting will affect perceptions remains to be seen and reactions will be hard to predict.

Timor has confounded outside observers since independence, with few anticipating the 2006 security meltdown, for example, and others following up with doomsday predictions for the 2007 elections, which in actuality passed off peacefully. What is clear, however, is that since Reinado's demise and the dissolution of his rebellion, the 100,000 internally displaced people have started to return home.

Yet Timor's political top brass have seen their popularity steadily decline in the years since independence. Ramos-Horta attributed Gusmao's disappointing showing in the 2007 parliamentary elections as due to the former fighters "losing touch with the people". FRETILIN, the socialists now in opposition and who were at odds with Gusmao since the early days of Indonesian occupation, saw their vote halved in the same 2007 vote.

Months before the disputed shoot-out, Ramos-Horta did much better in securing around 70% of the votes in the second presidential poll, albeit in a straight run-off against a weak FRETILIN candidate. Now military roadblocks mark the road on both sides of the once-popular president's home, where before the February shootout the Nobel Peace Prize laureate often went for his early morning jog greeting fishermen and bar owners with an easy and secure familiarity.

Simon Roughneen is a freelance journalist. He has reported from Africa, Southeast Asia the Middle East and Pakistan