Although East Timor's government has survived a no-confidence motion in parliament, there still is considerable anger over the prime minister's decision to release a pro-Indonesia militia leader charged with war crimes. This crisis is another test for a fledgling democracy.
Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao addressed the East Timor Parliament for more than two hours to defend his decision to release Maternus Bere.
Bere is accused of crimes against humanity in East Timor. He allegedly was one of the leaders of pro-Indonesia militias involved in a 1999 massacre in which scores of people were killed before East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. It was part of a wave of militia violence that left over 1,000 dead in East Timor.
An Indonesian national, Bere had been living in Indonesia until his arrest on August 8th, after he entered East Timor for a family gathering. He was charged and trial preparations began. But on August 30, the 10th anniversary of East Timor's vote for independence, Bere was handed over to the Indonesian Embassy.
Angry opposition politicians filed a no-confidence motion. After 12 hours of debate, it was voted down late Monday night.
Charles Scheiner is a researcher with La'o Hamtuck, organization that monitors democracy and development in East Timor or Timor Leste, the country's name in the Portuguese language. He followed the debate and says the prime minister claimed sole responsibility for the decision and was unapologetic.
"His basic theme was that his determination of what is in the national interest of Timor Leste, which has to do with maintaining a good relationship with the Indonesian government, is more important than legal technicalities or provisions of the constitution," Scheiner said.
Scheiner agrees with the opposition argument that the prime minister abused his power and interfered with the operation of an independent judiciary.
"You just cannot spring somebody because the prime minister thinks it is the diplomatic requirement," Scheiner noted. "The constitution very clearly says in Timor Leste, as in the United States and many other countries, the judicial system is independent and is not up to political officials, elected officials or government officials to override the laws and the constitutional priorities of the court system."
But the opposition could not persuade enough members of parliament to agree. The motion to dissolve Mr. Gusmao's Cabinet failed by a vote of 25 in favor and 38 against.
Scheiner says the victory for the prime minister is not a total loss for democracy. The debate ended peacefully and not in armed conflict or assassination attempts, as has happened here in the past.
But the matter is not dead; the Supreme Court is investigating whether the prime minister, in releasing Bere, violated the constitution.
This incident could become a major issue in the 2012 elections in East Timor, where one third of the people had family members killed during the Indonesian occupation.