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Prison brings Timor-Leste inmates closer to God

Convicted rapists, murderers rejoice in being shown the path to righteousness as Easter approaches

Prison brings Timor-Leste inmates closer to God

Prisoners join a regular prayer service at the Ermera District Court in Gleno, Timor-Leste, in January 2018. (Photo by Michael Coyne/uncanews.com)

Siktus Harson, Gleno
Timor Leste

March 28, 2018

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"Julio" was a physics teacher at a high school in Timor-Leste before he made a series of wrong decisions that finally landed him in jail.

He worked in Oecusse district, close to border with Indonesia. Everything was going fine, he said, until he made the mistake of falling in love with a 14-year-old student.

Their feelings became so strong that the father of six, who declined to give his real name, said their affair soon blossomed into a sexual relationship.

"I was in love with her, so of course we became intimate," he told ucanews.com, adding the relationship lasted four months.

However, in 2011 the news reached the girl's family. They accused Julio of raping the young student.

"I was attacked and beaten by several members of her family. They also reported me to the police," he said. "The case went to court and in June 2013 I was sentenced to 12 years in prison for rape."

During those early days, he said he spent most of his time feeling sorry for himself and wondering how he would cope.

But after several encounters with priests and other members of the church while behind bars, he began trying to follow the teachings of the Bible.

 

Sensing God's presence

This coming June will mark Julio's fifth year at Ermera District Jail in Gleno, about 40 kilometers west of the Timor-Leste capital of Dili, where another prison is located.

Instead of counting down his days in prison, he said he reflects on the harm he has inflicted on his family, the girl and her family, the school he worked for, society and God.

"I really regret what I did. I always ask for God's forgiveness for that," he said.

As he devotes more time to religious studies and his inner conversion to Christianity, he said he can feel God mapping out a path for him to walk down.

"I'm sad because I left my family to struggle by themselves. But I'm also happy because [I realize] prison is God's way of telling me to return to Him. I believe God has plans for me in the future," he said.

He said the loneliness he feels, and the pain of living so far removed from his family, pales in comparison to the suffering of Jesus, who died on the cross.

"Jesus was crucified for me. His suffering was far bigger than mine," he said.

For Julio, the crucifix and Easter are now a central part of his life. To help sustain his conviction he stays active in the prison ministry — singing in the choir, praying with other inmates, and attending Mass.

Maubere — also not his real name — was a catechist before he was jailed. The 47-year-old said he never imagined he would one day be locked up.

His problems began after he contested a local election to serve as the leader of his village. He won and served successfully for four years before he was undone when news of his affair with a 17-year-old girl came to light, he said.

A prison guard watches over inmates as they pray at the chapel at Ermera District Prison. (Photo by Michael Coyne/ucanews.com)

 

"I was accused of raping the girl. I was reported to the police and finally in 2014 the court sentenced me to six years in prison," said Maubere, who still believes he was the victim of a politically motivated attack by village rivals.

Instead of fighting back, he said he had no choice but to accept the court's ruling.

"I didn't have enough money to pay lawyers to fight on my behalf. I just accepted their decision. This is God's way of telling me to follow His path," he said.

He continues his work as a catechist in prison, helping his fellow inmates grow closer to God with community prayers, religious classes, Bible sharing and Mass, held once a week in a chapel inside the prison.

Maubere assists prison chaplains such as Jesuits from Our Lady of Fatima Church in Railaco and priests in Gleno, who regularly deliver Mass there and hear confessions at the prison.

"I also help my friends to recollect their past deeds, something we do ahead of religious festivals like Christmas and Easter, " he said.

 

'Not here to judge'

Anibal Da Luz, 42, has been a guard at the prison for 18 years. He said the facility was renovated around the time he started working there and it now has around 90 prisoners, including 17 women.

Inmates' sentences range from four to 24 years, he said. The man with the longest jail term was imprisoned for raping and killing a woman. The youngest inmate is 18, and is also there for raping a minor. The oldest inmate is 60.

"Most of them have been convicted of murder, followed by cases of rape or those involving narcotics," he said.

Agustino de Fatima Salsinha, 43, serves as the deputy head of Ermera Prison. He said inmates are encouraged to see prison as an opportunity to change their lives and work toward a brighter future while forgetting their dark pasts.

They receive training to arm them with a range of skills including carpentry, welding, brick making and more.

As many of the inmates are illiterate, the prison teaches them how to read and write as well as providing other forms of academic education.

"We also offer them spiritual guidance, such as by inviting chaplains to come in," Salsinha said.

He said preaching alone is not enough: The inmates must be shown how they can transform their lives and prepare to re-enter society as better people.

"So when they leave prison, they'll already have the skills they need to start new a life," he said.

He said it was important to treat inmates like people who are capable of converting to a better life.

"We're not here to judge them, but to make them realize they are humans, people who have faith," said Salsinha.

"It's our job to make them realize their wrongdoing and help them look forward to a better life in the future," he added.

As of now, Timor-Leste has two prisons. The biggest one is in Dili, which has over 560 inmates. A third is scheduled to be built soon in the western part of Timor-Leste, near the Indonesian border.

Salsinha said that while the number of prisoners nationwide is relatively small compared to Timor-Leste's population of 1.2 million, state resources are being stretched.

Dili prison is suffering more than Ermera as it has more prisoners, he said, adding it needs more staff to bolster security and ensure the programs designed to improve inmates' lives are carried out properly.

"Like I said, we're preparing people for the next stage in their lives. We just need a few more personnel to help us carry that out," Salsinha said.

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