Protecting children in conflict with the law in Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste is a young country in many ways. It is Asia’s youngest nation, having gained independence only 14 years ago, and children comprise around half of the country’s population. This presents great opportunities for the future of the country, but also challenges. I visited to see how the rights of children in conflict with the law were being protected, and what more needs to be done.

Timor-Leste is an incredibly beautiful country, and a vibrant one. Children were everywhere, whether they were playing sports or jogging along the beach, walking to school, or washing their clothes in nearby streams.

With the apparent large number of youth and special protection rights stipulated in the domestic law for offenders between the ages of 16 and 21, one would expect some form of a juvenile justice structure to at least exist. Sadly, young offenders are currently dealt with by the same criminal justice system as adults. There are no juvenile courts, and children can be detained for months before stepping foot into a courthouse to defend themselves.

Inside Becora Prison

The young offenders I met in Becora Prison had the most innocent of smiles, making it hard to believe that any of them had committed a crime. But behind those smiles lay deep concerns. Many of those detained expressed their loss of hope of a bright future after years of imprisonment.

Although the facilities of the prison were not devastating, the situation certainly wasn’t rosy either. Young offenders had a separate block designated as their own living quarters, but all of the remaining facilities and activities were shared with adults. The sleeping mattresses were clearly overused, the roof was leaking, and the rooms were small with seemingly unsanitary toilets.

One aspect that was particularly concerning was the fact that the young offenders did not have an understanding of the legal process or their rights. There is a legal aid organization that specializes in women and children, and young offenders also have access to public defenders for legal representation, but they told me that the process is not explained to them in an appropriate fashion.

The majority of those currently imprisoned did not get to meet a lawyer until the day of the hearing itself. “We may know the name of the public defender, but we don’t know who they are because we don’t meet them until we get to court,” one young man told me. “Sometimes, they don’t even recognize our faces.”

Building protective structures

However, the government in partnership with UNICEF has been busily developing modules and conducting training for not only the police, but also judges in the methods of child justice administration. They have also been focusing on capacity development for various actors in the system including child protection officers.

More importantly, the country is on the verge of establishing a comprehensive legislative framework for juvenile justice. There are several draft laws in the pipeline that will initiate a distinct division within the district courts to handle cases of children in conflict with the law, enable diversion at the prosecutorial level, and even ensure a better future by erasing the criminal record upon completion of the sentence.

Despite delays in the enactment of these much-needed laws, the draft legislation looks very promising, and both UNICEF and the Ministry of Justice have agreed to upscale advocacy efforts in expediting the process at the Council of Ministers and the National Parliament.

Moving forward

It has only been 14 years since Timor-Leste became an independent state and only 4 years since the UN peacekeeping mission pulled out of the territory, so it will take time to build a sound legal structure. Yes, the country is still lacking in various forms of protection for children, but the situation is not static, and the forthcoming reforms will be a tremendous step towards ensuring the rights of children.

Considering the negative impact that any form of detention and insensitive procedures can have on children, right now is the correct time for the country to finish developing the long-awaited system.

My experience in Timor-Leste was phenomenal, and I would recommend a visit to anyone in a heartbeat. It is an exciting time for the Timorese youth, and I hope to see an established legal framework for juvenile justice when I return.

The author

Ha Ryong Jung (Michael) is a Child Protection Intern at UNICEF EAPRO.

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