, DILI, Jul 13 – An East Timor court began the trial under tight security Monday of 28 people accused of trying to kill the president and prime minister in a failed twin assassination attempt.
President Jose Ramos-Horta required emergency surgery after being shot multiple times outside his home in the February 2008 attack. Gunmen also opened fire on the car of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who escaped unhurt.
The suspects, including ex-soldiers and an Australian citizen, appeared in a court in Dili on charges ranging from attempted murder to conspiracy to murder over the attacks on February 11 last year.
Rebel leader Alfredo Reinado was killed in the assault on Ramos-Horta’s home. His girlfriend Angelita Pires, an East Timor-born Australian, was accused by state prosecutor of taking part in the attack.
"Angelita Pires supplied clothes and medicine to Alfredo Reinado and his friends," a prosecutor told the court.
He also said she gave them "cigarettes which can reduce fear" — a possible reference to marijuana or narcotics — and encouraged Reinado to kill the country’s leaders.
Pires told reporters outside the courtroom before the trial began that she would "fight for justice."
"I will fight for major Alfredo Reinado, I won’t leave him," she said.
In an interview with Australia’s ABC public broadcaster: she said: "I’ll never plead guilty and I’ll never accept a pardon. Why should I?"
"Accept a pardon for what? For something I haven’t committed?
"If I have to go to jail simply because of my love for Alfredo Reinado, for my son, and for the people, so let it be. I’ll face it," she added.
State prosecutors began the trial by ejecting Pires’ two lawyers, an Australian and a Brazilian, forcing them into the public gallery.
Her co-accused are a group of soldiers who deserted en masse in 2006 and their commander, Gastao Salsinha, who took over from Reinado as the rebel chief.
"Gastao Salsinha was the one that launched the ambush on February 11, 2008 and the shooting at the prime minister’s convoy," the indictment says.
Salsinha — who surrendered with his men in a formal ceremony attended by Ramos-Horta last year — denied the allegations in court.
Ramos-Horta has said he may pardon the former soldiers, reserving his strongest words of condemnation for Pires, whom he accuses of goading Reinado into carrying out the attack.
Pires’ lawyer, Darwin-based barrister Jon Tippett, raised concerns she would not receive a fair trial under the justice system established by the United Nations in East Timor.
"It is a legal system that is outdated," he said. "It is unfair…. We fear it will create injustice in our case."
"This is a case that you need three, four, five months to prepare — not a week," he added.
The assassination attempts raised fears of a resumption of violence in East Timor, two years after the desertion of 600 soldiers led by Reinado triggered street fighting that killed some 40 people and forced 100,000 from their homes.
But the death of the charismatic Reinado and public distress over Ramos-Horta’s near brush with death instead helped bring an end to the rebellion.
Ramos-Horta spent weeks recovering in an Australian hospital before returning to East Timor to a hero’s welcome.
The president won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his work in exile to free East Timor from a bloody 24-year occupation by neighbouring Indonesia. The country won formal independence in 2002.