Aniceto Guterres Lopes

Ashoka Fellow
Roberval Tavares
Fellow since 1998
This description of Aniceto Guterres Lopes's work was prepared when Aniceto Guterres Lopes was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.


Aniceto Guterres Lopes is educating the citizens of East Timor to better understand their legal rights; and to begin using these rights as vehicles for legal and political change. He is helping East Timor professionalize the practice of law to help it develop an enduring capacity for resistance to Human Right abuse.

The New Idea

Aniceto is creating a legal profession in East Timor, an area under severe military rule, and with courts appointed by outside judges unsympathetic to the human rights abuses occurring. Although many Timorese do not believe they are bound by Indonesian law, Aniceto is working within the Indonesian legal framework to denounce the forces violating human rights abuses. He is pushing through cases of land rights, political freedom and rape to give Timorese a voice in the courts, which is a first for the region. The results of these cases are ammunition for Aniceto's national and international advocacy efforts. In preparing for the future, Aniceto is recruiting Timorese Law students. He seeks to build an independent legal profession to confront the existing government appointed, government serving system. Regardless of the future status of East Timor (autonomous, independent or otherwise), there can be a true rendering of justice within a well-functioning and respected legal system.

The Problem

East Timor, the former Portuguese territory, was annexed or "integrated" into the Indonesian state in 1976, based on a referendum still not accepted by the majority of East Timorese (believing that the tribal chiefs were coerced). The case is still before the UN. For the last 24 years, however, the Indonesian State has been the governing body and Indonesian rule is enforced within the territory. There is continuing opposition within East Timor - from within the hearts of the ordinary citizens, to continuing guerrilla warfare in the hills by the Fretilin (militant separatist) groups. Indonesia has brought development (roads and bridges, schools and clinics, electricity and water supplies) but this has been done in such a top-down fashion. Local people have not been trained for the jobs, which has resulted in high levels of resentment (and escalating social problems) against the influx of non-Timorese.

Furthermore, and this is the crux of the problem, Indonesia has taken a strongly centralist and militarist approach to the problem of East Timorese resistance to its rule. The government allows for no local autonomy and instigates very repressive measures, such as arbitrary arrest and detention, ransacking of homes, torture and inhuman behavior during investigations, disappearances and executions, all without the due process of law, discrimination based on accusations against people for being communists or Fretilin or anti-integrationists, and widespread abuse and violence against women.

In Aniceto's opinion, the source of these human rights violations is the deliberate use by the Indonesian state of the "security" forces, whose job it is to destroy insurgency attempts. East Timor has never been declared a war zone, yet people's legal rights (that should be guaranteed by both national and international legal regulations) have been violated. The East Timorese people are facing traumatic experiences and are not aware of the laws nor do they have anyone to turn to for assistance before the law.

International organisations such as Amnesty International, ICRC and NGOs have waged campaigns to restore human rights but without success. The local RC church authorities act on behalf of the people by intercepting wherever possible and reporting cases to competent groups, but all this has had limited impact on the basic problems. These groups are functioning on an international level, with no influence in effecting human rights cases on the local level.

Under such conditions, in which there is such a lack of respect for the law in the name of development, there is also no protection of people's economic, social and political rights. There are many cases in which the Timorese are denied their traditional rights to economic resources such as tribal lands and forest products. The people have no political strengths and are powerless before the law as proper legal procedures are constantly ignored. Individual cases are politicized and discrimination occurs.

Imprisonment and other injustices have serious social and economic impacts. The families of political prisoners face great economic hardships - families have no incomes, their health deteriorates, children drop out of school. The prisoners themselves are neglected and suffer traumatic experiences of torture that affect them long after their incarceration. There is constant intimidation of villages that are suspected of harboring Fretilin - burning, abductions. There are thousands of soldiers stationed all over the province and their presence is very stressful in daily lives of the people. There are many abuses of women.

The Strategy

In the context of this situation of a crisis, where there is a fundamental lack of respect for the law and basic human rights, Aniceto is using the law as the medium for increasing awareness among the East Timorese of their human and legal rights. There is no other agency to carry out advocacy and protection before the law on these crucial issues - Aniceto is the first person to set up such a service, and it is important that he is a local Timorese. His key idea is to use the law to turn it back on itself - by increasing proper awareness of the law, exposing problems and issues that would never otherwise get into the news. He relies on the fact that, by working carefully within the law, he can succeed in bringing attention to those issues "in the proper way", a way that should also provide him safety. He also uses this legal aid approach as an entry point for other activities related to community rights.

In August 1996 he set up a simple legal aid office to promote the rule of law and to advance and protect human rights by representing and monitoring human rights abuse cases. In March 1997, he established Yayasan HAK (Hukum/hak Asasi/Keadilan: Foundation for Law Enforcement, Basic Human Rights and Justice) to be the primary resource for people in their struggle for the achieving of all types of human rights, including the rights of women. Cases include political freedom, land rights and rapes committed by the military. The long-term goal is peace and justice for the East Timorese. He is not playing politics.

Aniceto's strategy is to take a legal and humanitarian approach to the problems, seeking justice through the existing formal regulations of Indonesian law, recognized international conventions on human rights, as well as the local traditional laws. In a repressive and dangerous situation, where room for advocacy and the protection of rights is almost non-existent, this legal and humanitarian approach is one that can be used. Aniceto argues that since the law was made to protect human rights, someone really cannot behave arbitrarily towards certain groups by perverting the law, so long as they are challenged when they try to do it. If we talk of human rights we talk about the law, and vice versa. Aniceto works carefully within the law to rekindle a respect for the law. He takes cases for anyone who needs him, and presents them in court nearly every day. Although he hardly ever wins because of continuing perversion of the justice system, his cases bring injustices to the forefront and make the case for national and international advocacy. The important thing is that the people continue to fight for their rights. Aniceto represents most cases for free, as his clients cannot afford to pay (except in kind, e.g. a live chicken), but he has attracted support for these activities of his organisation from donors.

He is very creative in his strategies. To promote public awareness about justice and about the community rights and responsibilities of both the ordinary people and the government officials, he is waging an education program through the local press (Suara Timor Timur -Voice of East Timor) in Bahasa Indonesia and through Radio Keuskupan Dili (Dili Diocese Radio) in Bahasa Tetun (East Timor language). He has weekly inputs to both mediums, to publicize the cases he represents. This education campaign through the media is an important part of his work, which seeks to have an impact on respect for the law and for people's rights. He sees that the people need to start to believe that they can act, that they can have self-respect, that attention can be paid to their problems; and that the police, army, justice and government officials can start to see that there must be more respect shown to the law.

To spread his ideas, Aniceto plans to establish branch offices in Baucau for the eastern part of the province and in Maliana for the western part. He also wants to establish related organisations that will pay specific attention to other types of rights - for the environment, consumers, laborers and traditional groups. These will be under the umbrella of his organisation, but like Fokupers (the group he established in 1997, specifically geared to women's rights) the goal is that they will become autonomous.

Regardless of all these spread strategies, Aniceto realizes the main obstacles in achieving large-scale impact in justice for human rights violations. He continues to be the only lawyer in East Timor. His mission is to build the legal profession in the area through recruiting and supporting more young Timorese lawyers and law students. Building a skilled and strong cadre of lawyers is necessary for the region to achieve a situation of law and order in the future.

Aniceto believes that his ideas will have national impact as there are human rights abuses all over the country and his approach is relevant to situations in other areas. He is in contact with other human rights groups throughout the country, and presents reports of his activities to them.

The Person

Aniceto comes from a farming family in East Timor (near W. T.) and was eight years old when war broke out. Given the unfair treatment of the Timorese, even though Aniceto was first in his class he was unable to earn a place at a university in Java. The governor, after paying special attention to Aniceto's case, obtained a scholarship for him to study law at the University of Bali. Subsequently, Aniceto managed to avoid his obligation to enter public service (as mandated by the terms of his scholarship) by convincing the Governor that he could serve the people better from outside the government.

Aniceto returned to East Timor in 1991 and began to work for the most prominent local NGO in Dili. In observing the situation, Aniceto saw that sometimes an LBH lawyer (Legal Aid Agency) would visit to handle a particular case but there was no local individual or agency to represent the people against the sufferings from government repression and injustice.