As the number of reported sexual crimes in Timor Leste increases, survivors - mostly women and girls - must wait up to one year as their cases wind through a struggling court system.
In a recent survey on law and justice in Timor-Leste, the Asia Foundation's office in the capital, Dili, noted that the rule of law is still in transition in the half-island nation, where the court system functioned sporadically for many years following the 1999 violence that resulted in thousands fleeing.
It was only two years ago that district courts started regular operations and almost all national court actors took up their posts again.
But with an anaemic formal justice system since 2002 - when independence from Indonesia was declared - community justice continues to reign, according to the Dili-based NGO, Judicial System Monitoring Programme (JSMP).
"Cases are often resolved outside the justice system because police and other actors believe it is the woman's obligation to have sex with her husband, so sexual assault is not an issue to be taken further," said the NGO's international adviser in the women's justice unit, Amrita Kapur.
JSMP does not track cases resolved in the community through family and community mediation, which is where the bulk of disputes are handled, said Kapur.
But for the cases that do not make it to the police, "victim protection units" are supposed to file charges in court on behalf of survivors of sexual violence. From here, the journey to judgment can be a long one.
"What happens after a woman brings a case to the police - it is clear there are many obstacles to proceeding with the case in the court system," Kapur added.
As of 2010, there are 49 national court actors (judges, prosecutors and public defenders), an increase of 12 since 2008, but still short of what is needed, according to JSMP.
Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
|Survivors at a livelihoods NGO workshop in Dili|
The general prosecutor's office faced a backlog of almost 5,000 cases as of 2009 - not restricted only to sexual violence - many of which were "poorly prepared by the police due to lack of legal knowledge, poor investigatory skills, a dearth of translation resources, and lack of transport funds for investigations", reported the Asia Foundation.
The head of the police victim protection unit in the southern district of Covalima, Amelia Amaral, said while the courts had been more responsive since 2008, data gathering could slow down the police.
As of August 2010, her unit had received 16 reports of sexual violence, including child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault and incest.
"For forensic analysis, we send to Pradet [local NGO, Psychosocial Recovery and Development East Timor]. But we do not even own the digital camera we currently use for investigations. It belongs to the UN. When they leave, we lose our cars and camera," said Amaral.
The UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste, which works jointly with local police in most districts while in others local police work alone, is scheduled to withdraw in 2012.
While lack of evidence is part of the problem, there are other hold-ups, said legal adviser Kapur.
"The police won't necessarily arrest the suspect straight away, and take a long time finding witnesses and gathering evidence. Some police believe even sexual assault should be resolved in the home. Most problems relate to how slow the investigation process is, and whether it is completed."
One year later
Elviana Alves Freitas, 24, said she has been waiting since January for a court date after she pressed rape charges in the capital against a government official in the Ministry of Justice. She accused the man of raping her at knifepoint.
"He told me he is not scared of my case because he is protected in the Ministry of Justice," said Freitas.
The accused, Mateus Du Casceicao Rocha, denies the charge.
Freitas is considered a witness to the state's case against the accused, and therefore not entitled to a court lawyer, said Kapur. Freitas had not heard of services offered by local NGOs such as JSMP and East Timor Women's Communication Forum (FOKUPERS) that provide legal counselling and accompany women to court appointments.
"VSS [victim support services] from JSMP accompany victims to give them support, which will often speed up the process, but otherwise [a] nine months to one year [wait for court judgement] is possible. Since four years ago, the situation has improved but not for all cases," said Kapur.