East Timor, or Timor Lorosa'e, is Asia's newest nation. For hundreds of
years it was a Portuguese colony, a sleeping backwater of Portugal's
long-sleeping empire. But the East Timorese awoke to a new invader in 1975:
Indonesia. Their armed resistance led to brutal reprisals and for nearly a
quarter of a century the people of East Timor suffered under the hard hand
of the Indonesian armed forces. Some 200,000 of them perished.
Aniceto Guterres Lopes was eight years old when Indonesia seized his
homeland. Coming of age amid the unwelcome occupation, he became a resister
and, in 1985, took up the study of law at Udayana University in Bali,
Indonesia. There he learned that Indonesian law actually upheld certain
basic rights that were being routinely denied in East Timor. And he met
Indonesian lawyers and activists who stood up for these rights despite their
own country's repressive dictatorship. They became his mentors and allies.
When Aniceto subsequently launched his law practice in East Timor, his
clients told him their stories. My husband was taken by soldiers two years
ago. My son has been jailed and tortured. Armed men have raped our daughter.
Aniceto did what little he could, given the unchecked power of the occupiers.
Meanwhile, he recorded every story and worked quietly with others
to prepare a different future for East Timor.
In 1996, Aniceto founded Yayasan HAK, or Human Rights and Justice
Foundation, to provide free legal services to human rights victims. As
director and, for a time, the group's only lawyer, he defended prominent
political prisoners and ordinary Timorese alike. His foundation methodically
documented massacres, extrajudicial killings, tortures, rapes, and arbitrary
arrests--339 cases in its first year alone--and became the single authoritative
source about such abuses in East Timor. Aniceto announced
these findings publicly and, through vernacular newspapers and radio,
educated the people about their rights under Indonesian and international
law. Few dared to speak so openly. He learned to live with harassment and threats.
When, in 1999, a new government in Jakarta offered East Timor the option of
independence through a popular referendum, the Indonesian military recruited
East Timorese militia bands to intimidate pro-independence voters. As they
launched a reign of terror, Aniceto organized election monitors. In the
September polls, 78 percent of the voters chose independence. The militias
killed and injured thousands of people in revenge and destroyed homes and
buildings everywhere, including Aniceto's own house and foundation headquarters.
As East Timor prepared for independence under the transitional authority of
the United Nations, Aniceto pondered his country's inadequate judicial
system. How could it possibly cope with all the unspeakable things that had
happened? With others, he proposed a truth commission for East Timor. When
the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation was formally
established in 2002, Aniceto was chosen unanimously to lead it.
Aniceto's commission seeks both to uncover the ugly truths of the past and
to confront them. Today, as commission teams investigate past political
crimes, former victims and perpetrators are facing each other in grassroots
reconciliation meetings throughout the country. Communities themselves are
meting out penance to remorseful militia men and to perpetrators of assault,
vandalism, and other "small crimes." In East Timor, however, murderers,
rapists, and torturers must still face the courts.
Soft-spoken Aniceto, now thirty-six, is often exhausted. It is not just the
never-ending work. It is the pressure to change East Timor's culture of
violence and retribution, a lingering impact of trauma and war. This weighs
heavily on the new nation. "We need to recognize this heaviness in our
past," Aniceto says, "and deal with it together."
In electing Aniceto Guterres Lopes to receive the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award
for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his courageous
stand for justice and the rule of law during East Timor's turbulent passage