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East Timor Assembly Approves Constitution - 2002-02-09

East Timor's Constituent Assembly has approved a new constitution expected to be officially adopted early next month.

The 88-member Constituent Assembly of East Timor voted 65-0 in favor of the constitution with 13 members abstaining and 10 legislatures absent.

The draft was completed in just a little more than three months. The Assembly, which is East Timor's first democratically elected body, was originally scheduled to approve the constitution last month. Lawmakers decided to take longer after receiving a letter from some U.S. congressmen advising careful consideration over speed.

But Tjitske Lingsma, a spokeswoman for the secretariat of the Constituent Assembly, said the members wanted to have the document complete before presidential elections. "Well they had a sense of having to rush this constitution," she said. "Initially there were three months and they all acknowledged that was way too short. They were still under a lot of pressure to finish it because we have presidential elections here in April."

East Timor's first constitution as an independent nation is loosely based on that of Portugal's, providing for a parliamentary system of government with a largely symbolic role for the president as head of state.

It outlines a division of powers between the three main branches of government - legislative, executive, and judiciary. It also guarantees freedom of the press, religion, and provides for a politically neutral military.

East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that had been under Indonesian rule for much of the last 30 years, also chose two official languages: Portuguese and Tetum. Bahasa Indonesian and English will serve as working languages.

The Assembly will now take the constitution to the 13 local districts to get feedback on its content and will consider making minor changes before formal adoption next month. Ms. Lingsma said this is seen as a crucial part of East Timor's democratic process. "Well the people in the districts are really waiting for the members of the assembly to come to them and to talk about the constitution, because they think it is their democratic right to talk about the constitution and to give their opinion," she said.

East Timor will become fully independent on May 20. The territory has been under U.N. supervision since 1999 after a violence-laden vote for independence from Indonesia.