Page 1 of 2 East Timor: Who shot J R Horta?
By Simon Roughneen
DILI - East Timor's post-independence politics have confounded outside
observers, and for the most part the Timorese themselves. Simultaneously
transparent and opaque, what was thought to be a mono-cultural, impoverished,
Western-backed, state-building poster-child has morphed into a divided
half-island, with obscure tribal-linguistic rivalries once considered dormant
since stirred by political rivalries and manifested in quasi-mysterious gangs.
The Timorese political elite remain at odds along familiar regime lines,
demarcations so old that these rivalries were, broadly speaking, established
when Richard Nixon was still in the White House and more sharply honed in the
1980s - when soap opera
addicts spent months wondering who shot J R Ewing, the fictional Texan oil
mogul in Dallas.
But East Timor may now have its own Watergate, or at least a watershed
political moment depending on which version of the events of February 11
finally emerges as the truth. That day, Dili's usual idyllic dawn was shattered
by shots ringing out along the seaside valleys just a few miles east of the
city, close to the white sand beaches favored by Timor's affluent expatriate
In what was regarded as either failed assassination attempts on President Jose
Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, or perhaps instead a
meeting-gone-awry between Ramos-Horta and former Timorese soldier Alfredo
Reinado, the shoot-outs put the president in the hospital for two months and
left rebel leader-cum-assassin Reinado in an early grave.
Reinado led the Petitioners, a group of disenchanted soldiers from the western
half of the country who felt discriminated against by army top brass from the
country's eastern regions. Prior to being dismissed from the armed services, he
was pivotal in a chain of violent events in 2006 that led to over 100,000
Timorese being driven from their homes and the resignation of then-prime
minister Mari Alkatiri. The army split, the police force disintegrated and
Reinado took to the hills.
Some of Reinado's colleagues that fateful February morning have offered
confusing and contradictory versions of what led up to the incident and what
finally happened when their flamboyant front man died. Ramos-Horta himself has
revised his initial recollection - that one of the rebels, Marcel Caetano,
fired the bullets that almost killed him - after visiting the imprisoned
would-be assassin in Dili's Becora jailhouse.
So who really shot Ramos-Horta and why? Considering the political machinations
that preceded the shootings, it now seems unlikely it was Reinado who pulled
the trigger. Ramos-Horta had repeatedly offered olive branches to the flashy
rent-a-quote rebel, who had been dismissed by the Australian-led international
forces and the ruling Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) coalition headed by
Ramos-Horta's ally Gusmao, as a de facto criminal with no political status.
Another rumor doing the rounds was that, behind the scenes, Ramos-Horta had
given up on the recalcitrant fugitive and that Reinado had set out in a huff
for Dili to confront the president. That would have been suicidal unless it was
followed by a coup attempt, hence the apparent simultaneous hit on Gusmao led
by Gastinho Salsinha, Reinado's deputy. However, that too now seems unlikely
given the lack of men and hardware at Reinado's disposal that morning.
In any case, Ramos-Horta survived, Reinado died, and the political fallout was
until now minimal. That was until The Australian newspaper revealed it had
reviewed the top-secret report drafted by Muhumad Nurul Islam, Timor's leading
forensic pathologist, saying it indicated that Reinado and his sidekick
Leopoldinho Exposto were shot at close or point-blank range in an execution
style that does not tally with the prevailing shoot-out version of events -
namely, that Reinado was taken out at a range of 10 meters or so by one of
Nurul reported that Reinado had blackening and burning around each of his four
bullet wounds and said he had been shot with a high-velocity rifle "at close
range". Nurul added that Exposto was shot squarely in the back of his head,
also at close range. David Ranson from the Victoria Institute of Forensics was
quoted by The Australian saying that the blackening and burning mentioned in
Nurul's report only appears when a gun is fired at almost point-blank range.
Ramos-Horta later raged in a Timorese newspaper against The Australian
newspaper and the forensic scientists that the newspaper consulted. Attorney
General Longinus Montero disputed The Australian version of events, telling
reporters in Dili that "It's not right, that information isn't right. The case
is still under investigation." He added that the results could not yet be made
Apart from the apparent contradictions, much of what apparently transpired on
February 11 seems strange. Most glaring was why, with gunfire ringing around
his house, Ramos-Horta returned home, or more to the point, why his security
detail let him do so. Much has been made of the delay in the army and police
response to the shooting, and it appears that Reinado's body was moved around
the crime scene, and that police present even answered his mobile phone as he
Confusion and conspiracy
Some of Timor's other political grandees appear set to capitalize on the
confusion. Mario Carrascalao, a key member of the ruling coalition, said on
August 17 that "we still don't know what happened". "For me, all the stories
that have been told here - I don't trust them," he said. He called for the
immediate release of the prosecutor-general's report into the attacks and the
establishment of an independent inquiry into "what happened and more
importantly why it happened".
Prime Minister Gusmao has so far resisted calls for any independent inquiry.
Before the February shootings, Ramos-Horta's house stood alone at the corner of
the route heading uphill from Dili and east to Timor's second city Baucau, no
more than a few feet from the roadside, and with some of the gardens easily
visible from inside cars and trucks winding uphill to breathtaking views of the
The standard version of events, summed up by James Dunn in a paper written for
the Australian Human rights Council, took a best-case view that Reinado did not
actually intend to kill Ramos-Horta during the fateful encounter: "Almost
certainly it was a botched attempt by the rebel leader, Alfredo Reinado, to
corner the president and seek further assurances that the proposed surrender
conditions, culminating in his pardon, would in fact be carried out."
The report continued: "The plan went tragically wrong because Reinado's target
was not there. The President was not at home, but out on a very early beach
walk. Reinado's men disarmed the guards and occupied the residence grounds, but
two soldiers turned up unexpectedly and shot Reinado and one of his men at what
was apparently point blank range. Hearing the shooting, Ramos-Horta hurried
back to the residence where he was shot by one of Reinado's men, a rebel
enraged at the killing of their leader. It is likely that this angry reaction
caused another rebel party to fire on Prime Minister Xanana some time later."
Still, the rumor mill went into overdrive after the shootings. Questions have
arisen about the provenance of a US$700,000 bank account in Australia that
Reinado allegedly had access to. Other sketchy details surround the links
between the rebels and Joao Tavares, who was once described by the UN as the
top militia commander in East Timor in 1999. Three rebels were arrested in
April in Indonesia-ruled West Timor while staying at his personal residence.
Reinado had a fake Indonesian identification on his person when shot and,
bizarrely, Ramos-Horta later railed against Desi Anwar, a well-known Indonesian
broadcast journalist who interviewed the fugitive in Indonesia in 2007, for
facilitating Reinado's clandestine cross-border travels. In January, an obscure
group linked to Reinado known as the Movement for National Unity and Justice
(MUNJ) withdrew from moribund talks between the government and the rebels, a
failure that Ramos-Horta and Gusmao blamed on Reinado's girlfriend, Angie
Depending on which rebel account you believe, however, MUNJ representatives
were with Reinado right up to February 10, allegedly supplying the vehicles
that took the rebels to the capital's outskirts the day of the reputed