Last month a baby was shot dead in an inner suburb of East Timor's capital, Dili. His father, a policeman, had returned home from his shift and put his pistol atop a cupboard before lying down for a nap. A short time later, his frantic wife burst into the room, saying their six-year-old son had hold of the gun. Then a shot rang out. Rushing outside, the couple found their youngest child, a six-months-old boy, dead from a bullet wound.
Two weeks later, standing beside the baby's concrete gravestone in his dusty backyard, the officer says he can't discuss the matter, or be named, because he is under investigation. But the incident is symptomatic of the troubles plaguing the Policia Nacional de Timor-Leste. Responsibility for the nation's internal security will soon be transferred to the PNTL from United Nations police and an international peacekeeping force. But concerns about weapons training, discipline and loyalty have some observers wondering if the PNTL is ready to make that transition.
Two years ago, East Timor's police and military fractured along political and geographic lines, leading to bloody street battles in Dili. The conflict left 37 dead, including eight police officers, and displaced 150,000 people, most of whom have only recently returned to their villages. It also led to the dissolution of the Fretilin government.
Since then, the country's fragile internal security has been entrusted to a 1,500-strong contingent of U.N. police and an International Stabilisation Force made up of 920 Australian and New Zealand troops. As part of the security program, the U.N. and the East Timorese government signed a Reform, Restructuring and Rebuilding plan to regenerate the PNTL.
The plan entailed a comprehensive screening process to remove those involved in the violence, followed by a six-month mentoring period for officers, a five-day training course and later a firearms certification course. Ninety-five per cent of the force has now undergone retraining, and in the New Year the first districts are expected to be returned to PNTL control as Australia withdraws 100 of its troops. Assuming the force meets certain benchmarks, the East Timorese government intends the PNTL to be responsible for about 70% of the nation's security by mid-2009.
Fragile Gains The scenario makes some observers nervous. Says one UNPOL source: "If the s__ hits the fan, the PNTL will just head for home. They will go back to their villages and it will be every man for himself." Australian academic Bu Wilson has just completed a review of the PNTL's capability. She fears that "rather than rebuilding the PNTL, the U.N. mission may be instead bequeathing a weak and unstable police force to Timor-Leste."
Wilson found glaring problems with the retraining process. Screening and certification were politicized and confused, she wrote, while some PNTL officers whom the U.N. mission had recommended should be dismissed for breaching integrity rules had instead been promoted. Mentoring by UNPOL had been scaled down, and many UNPOL officers preferred to do the police work themselves.
Some U.N. police are reluctant to speak on the record butprivately agree with Wilson's claims. Senior officers acknowledge some shortcomings but remain confident the force will be able to handle security duties. "This is a very young police service," says acting U.N. East Timor Police Commissioner Juan Carlos Arevalo Linares. "We cannot expect to have a police service like Australia's when this country has only had a police service for a little more than six years."
Linares concedes there is much work to do on discipline and the correct use of force, but he cautions against reading too much into the shooting of the baby. "That cannot disqualify the PNTL," he says, "because it's the kind of incident I have seen in other countries with police forces with much more assistance."
But the problems of policing are on plain view in Dili. Late one night, in a shanty-lined street, TIME is hailed by a man bearing an assault rifle and surrounded by a group of drunken friends. He claims he is part of the Health Minister's police bodyguard and says the weapon is kept close at hand in case of an urgent call for help.
Secretary of State for Security Francisco da Costa Guterres, who has responsibility for the police, has told TIME that police are required to leave their guns at the station when they go off duty. He alleges that the officer in the shooting case "made a mistake and took the weapon home with him." But UNPOL sources say observance of the rules varies among police units.