FURTHER QUESTIONS RAISED IN EAST TIMOR “ASSASSINATION” TRIAL
By Patrick O’Connor – wsws – 30 January 2010
The ongoing trial of dual Australian and East Timorese citizen Angelita
Pires and 27 men on attempted murder and conspiracy charges relating to
an alleged dual assassination plot against East Timor’s President Jose
Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has raised further serious
questions about the murky affair. While numerous issues remain unclear,
the evidence so far presented—including forensic evidence such as
autopsy and ballistics reports, as well as witness testimonies—has
established that the official version of events is false.
On February 10, 2008, Alfredo Reinado—Pires’s partner and a former
military-police commander who was wanted on murder and weapons charges
relating to his mutinous activities in 2006—was with his ex-soldier
supporters in western East Timor. Reinado met briefly with Pires that
evening, and also held lengthy discussions with representatives of the
Movement for National Unity and Justice (MUNJ). The MUNJ had previously
functioned as the official go-between for Ramos-Horta, organising
meetings between Reinado and the president over the terms of Reinado’s
surrender and a presidential amnesty. During the night, Reinado and his
heavily armed men drove for several hours in two vehicles to Dili.
Ex-soldier Gastao Salsinha led one group toward Prime Minister Gusmao’s
house; Reinado led another to Ramos-Horta’s. After they arrived at dawn
on February 11—inexplicably undetected by Timorese security forces and
the nearly 1,000 Australian and New Zealand troops stationed in the
country—Reinado and one of his men, Leopoldino Exposto, were shot dead.
President Horta, returning from his morning walk, was subsequently shot
multiple times and nearly died before receiving emergency treatment.
Later in the morning, Gusmao’s vehicle was reportedly shot at but the
prime minister and his staff were unharmed.
Timorese state prosecutors insist that Reinado and his men—incited by
Pires—were responsible for an unsuccessful double assassination
attempt. However, the evidence presented during the trial, which has
been underway since last July, has instead been largely consistent with
the case argued by Pires’s Australian barrister Jon Tippett, QC. This
is that Reinado and his men were set up—they had been lured to Dili to
be murdered after being persuaded that they had a meeting for further
discussion with the president.
Leaked autopsy reports demonstrate that Reinado and his colleague
Leopoldino Exposto were shot dead from point-blank range—Reinado
through the eye, Exposto through the back of the head. The autopsies
directly contradict the testimony of Horta’s military guard, Francisco
Lino Marcal, that he shot both Reinado and Exposto—the former from a
distance of 30 to 40 metres and the latter from 15 to 20 metres.
Prosecutors have been accused of attempting to cover up these
contradictions by suppressing evidence. The court was told that
photographs of Reinado and Exposto’s autopsies did not exist—but images
from both autopsies were later leaked to the Timorese media. One of the
prosecutors, Felismino Cardoso Garcia, who had insisted that there were
no photographs, appears in many of the images standing beside medical
examiners over Reinado’s corpse.
The evidence of Horta’s military guard was also discredited with the
release of Australian Federal Police (AFP) ballistics reports. These
showed that the bullets recovered from the bodies of Reinado and
Exposto were not the same ones used in the standard military weapon
that Francisco Lino Marcal said he fired. Moreover, the bullets used to
kill Reinado were different to those found in Exposto, suggesting that
there were two shooters. Both weapons used in the execution-style
killings have disappeared, with the AFP unable to match the bullets to
any of the 30 firearms submitted by Ramos-Horta’s guard for forensic
The AFP reports included alternative explanations to the official
“coup” story. One noted that Reinado may have either “had a meeting
with the President but no one else at the presidential compound knew
about it”, or that “it was a successful trap to finally silence
Further questions emerged in an article by the Australian’s Paul
Toohey, published shortly after the trial began last year. “A
confidential UN report has witnesses stating that Reinado and his men
were inside the President’s compound for at least 50 minutes before
they were shot,” he wrote. “During this time, none of the nine
civilians or the 13 soldiers that were present thought to notify
authorities. In fact, as the report notes, nine of Dr Ramos-Horta’s 13
guards mysteriously disappeared when Reinado turned up. More than ever,
it appears the official version of events is a cover-up. It now seems
possible that immediately after Reinado and Leopoldino were shot, the
rebels fled for the hills and were nowhere near the compound when an
unknown masked gunman shot Dr Ramos-Horta.”
Obvious questions remain unanswered. What was Reinado doing in
Ramos-Horta’s house for nearly an hour before he was shot? Why the
apparent attempt by the presidential guard to later testify that
shooting erupted as soon as Reinado and his men arrived? According to
an East Timorese internet news outlet, an Irish volunteer worker
staying at Ramos-Horta’s residence, Marie Claire, told the court she
heard the first shots at 6.50 a.m., but when later giving a statement
to police was asked to say that fighting erupted at 6.10 a.m. She three
times refused to sign a printed statement that had the incorrect time.
The Australian article also cast doubt on the alleged ambush of
Gusmao’s convoy: “A non-AFP intelligence report seen by the Australian
states that the only ‘visible shooter’ in the Gusmao roadside ambush
was wearing ‘civilian clothes, a sports jacket with a hood’. All the
rebels were wearing military fatigues.”
If the cited “confidential UN report” and “non-AFP intelligence report”
are accurate, Reinado’s men were responsible for neither Ramos-Horta’s
near-fatal shooting nor the alleged attack on Gusmao’s vehicle. Who
then was responsible—and what was the motive? Who stood to gain from
the elimination of Reinado and Ramos-Horta? Who has benefitted from the
so-called “double assassination”?
Australian media blackout
These are questions yet to be raised anywhere in the Australian press.
Toohey’s article in July last year was the last to note any of the
jarring contradictions in the official version of events. Since then a
media blackout has been imposed. After the first week’s proceedings, it
appears that not a single Australian journalist has attended the Pires
trial, with Timorese and Portuguese outlets providing the only
coverage. In November, the Qatar-based television news network Al
Jazeera broadcast a report, noting that the proceedings were “mired in
controversy, suspicion, and doubt about whether this was a genuine
assassination attempt, or in fact some kind of setup designed to rid
East Timor of its lingering rebel problem”.
The lack of interest on the part of the Australian media cannot be
explained by a lack of newsworthiness. The trial of an Australian
citizen for orchestrating an alleged coup d’état or double
assassination plot against the president and prime minister of a
neighbouring state ought to be, on any objective measure, a major story.
But if Reinado was set up, all the indications point to Canberra’s
closest ally in Dili—Prime Minister Gusmao—as the most likely culprit.
The former guerrilla independence leader and the right-wing cabal that
surrounds him had the most to gain by the death of both Reinado and
Ramos-Horta. Pursuing this line of investigation further raises the
question as to whether Australian forces in Timor acquiesced in the
plot—and whether foreign security forces were stood down on February 11
in order to permit Reinado and his men to reach the presidential
The Pires trial appears to be another instance in which the media
simply buries important stories that threaten to cut across the
economic and strategic interests of Australian imperialism in the
Pacific region. In this regard there are parallels with the official
silence on the failed frame-up of former Solomon Islands’ attorney
general Julian Moti on bogus rape charges. (See: “Australian government
frame-up of Julian Moti collapses as court throws out charges”)
Reinado’s dubious record as a “rebel” soldier was closely bound up with
the political calculations of the Australian government. Reinado was
trained by the Australian military in Canberra, before he mutinied in
May 2006. He joined the “petitioners”—a section of the military headed
by Salsinha and backed by Gusmao that instigated violent protests
against the elected Fretilin government of Prime Minister Mari
Alkatiri. The petitioners’ campaign was seized upon by ex-Indonesian
militia forces, criminal gangs, right-wing opposition parties, the
Catholic Church—and the Australian government. . Canberra used the
unrest as a pretext to dispatch more than 1,000 troops. The ABC and
other Australian media outlets promoted lurid and baseless claims that
Alkatiri had armed death squads to assassinate his political opponents.
The prime minister’s real “crime” was that he had forced Canberra to
make unwelcome concessions on the carve up of the Timor Sea lucrative
oil and gas reserves, and had come to be regarded as too close to rival
powers Portugal and China.
In 2007, presidential and parliamentary elections took place under the
watch of the Australian military. Ramos-Horta was installed as
president, while Gusmao headed an unstable and disparate coalition
government resting upon the same political forces that were mobilised
against Alkatiri in 2006.
Reinado initially enjoyed the support of Gusmao and the Australian
forces. Despite being officially charged with murder relating to his
activities in the May 2006 crisis, the former major and his men were
able to move around East Timor’s rural western districts with effective
impunity. The situation changed, however, in late 2007 and early 2008.
Reinado released a widely circulated DVD in which he accused Gusmao of
orchestrating the 2006 crisis and threatened to reveal further details.
Its release triggered a major crisis for the Gusmao government.
In a cross-party meeting of MPs held on February 7, 2008, President
Ramos-Horta agreed with the opposition Fretilin’s demand that fresh
elections be called to resolve the political impasse. At the same time,
Ramos-Horta was finalising an amnesty deal he had personally negotiated
with Reinado in meetings held in remote jungle districts in western
East Timor. In return for his surrender and disarming, Reinado would be
pardoned for all his crimes.
Gusmao, therefore, faced the prospect of the former major returning to
Dili a free man, potentially revealing incriminating details of
behind-the-scenes events in 2006. At the same time, the prime minister
and his allies were threatened with losing office less than a year
after they came to power. It strains belief that Gusmao and the various
business and mafia elements aligned with his government would have
remained passive in the face of these threats. Similarly, there was
much at stake for the Australian government. Alkatiri’s return as prime
minister would have undone all of Canberra’s efforts over the previous
Moreover, the prosecution in the Pires trial is yet to establish a
credible motive as to why Reinado would attack Ramos-Horta—the one man
willing and able to grant him amnesty. It has emerged in the course of
proceedings that Reinado and the president had a meeting scheduled for
February 17 in the town of Gleno, south west of Dili. If Reinado had
really intended to kill or kidnap the president why did he not wait a
few days for Ramos-Horta to again travel in secret to the rebel force’s
stronghold? Why would he risk detection and confrontation with Timorese
security forces, UN police, and Australian and New Zealand soldiers by
driving through Dili?
MUNJ and Ramos-Horta’s guard
Reinado’s men have testified that they understood that a meeting had
been arranged with Ramos-Horta for the morning of February 11. This has
been corroborated by other witnesses.
How Reinado might have believed he had a meeting with Ramos-Horta is
unclear, although suspicion has fallen on the MUNJ, which before 2007
went by a different name—the National Front for Justice and Peace
(FNJP). The organisation was one of the most prominent of several gangs
based in Timor’s western districts that participated in the violent
anti-Fretilin government protests in 2006. Led by former Timorese
soldier Major Augusto “Tara” Araujo, the FNJP played a key role in
organising the initial protests by the “petitioners”. Even after
Alkatiri resigned, the group called demonstrations to demand the former
prime minister’s arrest. The FNJP appealed to Gusmao to assume
unconstitutional powers as a presidential dictator, demanding he
dissolve the government and shut down parliament.
At the beginning of 2007 the group insisted that scheduled presidential
and parliamentary elections be called off. One of their senior members,
Dili coordinator Vital Dos Santos, was nevertheless elected to
parliament as a candidate for the Democratic Party of Fernando “La
Sama” de Araujo. Several other MUNJ members also have close connections
with right-wing parties. Augusto “Tara” Araujo was last month reported
to have been proposed as a replacement for Mario Carrascalao as leader
of the Social Democratic Party. Another MUNJ leader, Augusto Junior
Trinidade, was employed in President Ramos-Horta’s office from mid-2007.
In 2006-2007 FNJP/MUNJ demanded that the pursuit of Reinado cease and
that his murder and weapons charges be dropped. Significantly, it
demanded the withdrawal of the Portuguese National Republican Guard
police force from East Timor, but said nothing about the Australian
military presence. Canberra’s overriding preoccupation has been to
sideline its rivals for influence in Dili, including the former
colonial power Portugal. In 2007 Ramos-Horta granted MUNJ official
status in his negotiations with Reinado; members of the group
subsequently received public monies and vehicles. Reinado and his men
reportedly used MUNJ four-wheel drives to travel to Dili on February
The president has remained silent on these issues. In initial
statements after his release from hospital in 2008, Ramos-Horta was
clearly shaken by the attack. He was critical of the Australian
military’s failure to intercept Reinado, said he wanted to resign from
office, and revealed that he still feared for his life. It was not
clear whom he feared might attack him again, given that Reinado was
dead and his supporters were negotiating their surrender at the time.
Soon after, however, Ramos-Horta shifted his stance. He ceased raising
questions about how the attacks had happened, withdrew his support for
new elections, lined up with the public scapegoating of Pires for the
February 11 events, and indicated he would issue post-trial pardons for
Salsinha and his men. The president has refused to testify in court,
only issuing a written statement.
Gusmao has likewise decided to evade cross-examination. The prime
minister will not be questioned about the alleged attack on his
vehicle. The Australian intelligence report that the shooter was not
one of Reinado or Salsinha’s men has added significant weight to the
charge levelled by former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and other
political figures that the entire incident was staged. The obvious
implication is that Gusmao was seeking to cover up his own role in
Gusmao’s Australian wife, Kirsty Sword, took the stand as a witness
last December. No Australian or western media covered her testimony.
Some East Timorese reports claimed that there were differences between
her testimony and her dramatic public statements at the time. She
described hiding her children under the family bed as armed rebels
raided her home on the morning of February 11. In court, Sword
reportedly claimed a loss of memory on certain details.
The unravelling of the official cover-up of the events of February 11
2008—in which the central figures of the East Timorese state were
involved—can only compound the country’s ongoing political turmoil.
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