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A tiger with teeth

When Timor-Leste’s Anti-Corruption Commission (CAC) was established in 2009, many people wondered whether it was just a political sop to minimise concern about perceptions of growing corruption, or whether it would be serious in trying to tackle the growing problem. If the CAC was to be serious, they wondered, would it last? In many respects, the CAC was always going to face significant challenges in a small and relatively interconnected society such as Timor-Leste. If the CAC pursued senior figures in Timor-Leste’s small and relatively closed political society then the CAC and its senior figures would earn powerful enemies, come under attack and perhaps be professionally destroyed. If the CAC did not pursue high profile corruption cases it would then be labelled as ineffective; as a ‘toothless tiger’. There was concern, too, that after the establishment of the CAC it appeared to be inactive. Was this, some people wondered, to be a government agency that cost much but did little? When it finally became active, it was through public education. Most people agreed that public education about corruption was important, but this was a long way from going after the hard cases. However, with the high profile conviction of former Justice Minister Lucia Lobato, the CAC has now proven that it is not a ‘toothless tiger’, but a tiger which has teeth and which is not afraid to use them. On 8 June, Lobato was convicted by Timor-Leste’s District Court and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for the misadministration of funds. Lobato was found not guilty of three other charges including corruption, the abuse of power and falsification of documents. However, her conviction for the misadministration of funds and subsequent sentencing sends a powerful message to Timor-Leste’s power holders that no-one, including government ministers, is above the law and that people considering engaging in corrupt behaviour need to think twice about it. When he was appointed to the position of the CAC’s commissioner, Aderito Soares had a longer term plan for how the CAC would work. To start, Soares had to interrupt work on the PhD that he was undertaking with noted Australian National University criminologist Professor John Braithewaite. Professor Braithewaite was disappointed that Soares, a promising student, chose to leave. But he also understood Soares’ first loyalty was to serving his home. Soares hopes to return to his PhD one day, but it probably will not be until after he has made a significant impact on corruption in Timor-Leste. After his appointment, Soares went about assembling the most competent and clean investigative team possible. In doing so, Soares took some of Timor-Leste’s best and brightest, establishing the CAC as Timor-Leste’s premier institution in terms of both intellect and capacity. Having established the anti-corruption team, its members went to work quietly investigating a number of cases, including that of Lobato. Meanwhile, Soares also set the public scene for such prosecutions by building up a public profile for the fight against corruption. This was where the CAC’s public education campaign came in. The intention of this campaign was to remind all Timorese that corruption damages the economy and society for all Timorese, that is illegal and to discourage its practice. But it was also intended to prepare the ground, so that no-one could be surprised that the CAC’s campaign was also intended to expose corrupt officials and others. All of this was pre-planned. So, it should come as no surprise that the first high profile case has been successful. Allegations about corruption have abounded in Timor-Leste since soon after achieving independence and there is little doubt that a growing economy set against need on one hand and greed on the other also fuels corruption. But, for those who have engaged in corrupt practices or who might have been considering doing so, there is now a strong incentive for reconsidering their actions. The question that some of Timor-Leste’s economic and political elite must now be asking themselves is, with a former Finance Minister convicted, who will be next?

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