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Timor-Leste lawyers cry foul over ex-priest's abuse trial

Court accused of breaching rules by repeatedly postponing the trial of American Richard Daschbach

Timor-Leste lawyers cry foul over ex-priest's abuse trial

Police stand outside the courthouse in Oecusse in Timor-Leste where ex-priest Richard Daschbach is supposed to stand trial. (Photo: Facebook page of Jurídico Social Consultoria)

Lawyers for alleged victims in a sexual abuse case involving an ex-priest in Timor-Leste are to lodge an official complaint against officials at a district court where the case is being heard after the trial was postponed for a third time.

On May 24, the Oecusse District Court decided to again postpone the trial, which began on Feb. 22, after the defendant Richard Daschbach, his lawyer and a prosecutor failed to appear in court, supposedly because of travel restrictions imposed in the capital Dili to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The first postponement came just after the trial opened in February and the second came in late March. The next hearing is scheduled for June 7.

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In a statement issued on May 25, lawyers representing 15 alleged victims said they intended to make a complaint to the Superior Council of Judicial Magistrates (SCJM) — the body that oversees judicial proceedings — over what they said was a breach of procedural rules.

They stipulate that a trial cannot be postponed if the case prosecutor or the defense cannot be present.

“The decision to postpone the hearing was taken without recourse to a hearing and ignored the fact that a member of the prosecution service was in the court building at the time of the hearing,” said the lawyers from Jurídico Social Consultoria, a group that fights human rights cases.

The court’s decision shows a total lack of respect for the victims and a lack of commitment to conclude this case,

They also questioned why the prosecutor, defendant and his lawyers failed to attend as transport links to Oecusse, a Timor-Leste enclave in Indonesia, were running.

“Neither the accused nor his team traveled,” they said.

“Covid-19 has brought challenges as it relates to the movement of people. However, if the judge and the interpreter can come to Oecusse, as well as the victims and their lawyers, how is it possible that the accused and his team could not come?” Maria Agnes Bere, one of the Jurídico lawyers, said.

“The court’s decision shows a total lack of respect for the victims and a lack of commitment to conclude this case, which was initially registered close to three years ago.”

Jurídico lawyers also reported that on May 26 they were prohibited by the judge from approaching the court to ask for certainty over the trial postponement.

"We need to have trust in the justice system in Timor-Leste, otherwise we will not attend court,” Bere said. “The recent decision surprised us and has shaken the trust that we have in the court.” 

Daschbach's case is being closely watched in the predominantly Catholic country as Daschbach is the first priest to be tried in a civilian court.

The former Divine Word priest was dismissed by the Vatican in 2018 after he confessed to abusing children at the Oecusse-based Topu Honis children's shelter which he founded in 1993.

The 84-year-old, who is under house arrest in Dili, is charged with child abuse, child pornography and domestic violence and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

He has also been placed on Interpol's red notice list as he faces wire fraud charges in the United States.

Although he has confessed to being a pedophile, he still has broad support, including among the country's political leaders, who credit him with helping Timor-Leste's struggle for independence from Indonesia.

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