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 1997, 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 to nationhood.