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After 6 Months, Portugal’s Tiago Guerra Is Still in Jail, Awaiting Trial in Timor-Leste

Tiago Guerra and his two sons. Photo via the Facebook group "Justice for Tiago Guerra". Facebook.

Tiago Guerra and his two sons. Photo via the Facebook group “Justice for Tiago Guerra”. Facebook.

Tiago Guerra, a Portuguese engineer, has remained in jail in Timor-Leste for about six months without being formally charged of anything, in violation of Section 30, Article 3 of the country's constitution, says his family.

According to his arrest warrant, Guerra was detained in October 2014 at Dili airport for his alleged involvement in a money-laundering scheme. His wife was detained with him, but she was later released on her own recognizance. Their children, still in Portugal, are in the care of their paternal grandparents. 

Guerra is being held in Timor-Leste's Becora Prison, where conditions are quite poor. According to reports, the facility—the country's main detention center for men—lacks drinking water and beds. 

Guerra's sister, Inês Lau, who lives in Brazil, told Global Voices:

O Tiago esteve gravemente doente e nem assistência médica teve. O médico do recinto prisional de Bécora estava ausente há pelo menos 10 dias e por mais que houvesse um médico de fora disposto a observar o Tiago, a ordem, por parte da prisão, foi de que nenhum médico externo entraria. O Tiago acabou por ser hospitalizado durante 1 dia apenas e depois foi novamente levado para a prisão com a promessa de que a mulher e/ou família seria avisada da necessidade de comprar os remédios receitados pelo médico com urgência.

Tiago has been seriously ill, but [prison officials] didn't even give him medical care. The doctor from the Bécora jail complex disappeared for at least 10 days and even though there was an external doctor willing to observe Tiago, the decision, on the part of the jail, was that no external doctor was allowed to enter the jail. In the end, Tiago ended up in the hospital for only one day and after that was again taken back to jail with the promise that his wife and/or his family would be told about the urgent need to buy the medicines prescribed by the doctor.

Lau adds that “nobody from the family was notified”. And when they finally came to know about her brother's health condition, “[H]is weight had already dropped 10 kilos [about 22 pounds] due to extreme dehydration and high temperatures”. His sister says “she cannot remain silent”, as she finds out about her brother's precarious conditions:

Nunca foi pedido que se atropelassem os processos judiciais legais, por menos céleres que sejam. O que se pede às pessoas é que tomem conhecimento da violação dos direitos humanos que está a acontecer e que nos ajudem a conseguir que seja feita uma investigação transparente no intuito de se apurar a verdade e ser feita justiça.

No one has ever demanded going outside the legal process, even if the courts are indeed very slow. The only grievance is that people seem to be unaware of the breaches of human rights taking place. We only ask for a guarantee that there will be a transparent investigation, so truth and justice may prevail.

The Dili District Court ordered Guerra's pretrial detention, saying he is a flight risk. He can be held in state custody like this for as long as 18 months. Guerra's family is appealing the decision.

Guerra's family says he hasn't yet been informed specifically of what he did that has brought the case against him. According to an article published in the Portuguese newspaper Expresso, he refused to sign the transcript of his interrogation, disagreeing with its contents. The newspaper says the transcript contained several “incomprehensible” passages.

Who is Tiago Guerra and why did he come to Timor-Leste?

Tiago Guerra is a 43-year-old telecommunication engineer and he holds a Master's degree in Business Administration. He is married with two children. He was a manager for Portugal Telecom in Macau, Brazil, and China, assistant to the Timorese government, and a consultant to the World Bank. He has lived in Timor-Leste for four years.

In 2010, he travelled to Timor-Leste on a contract with a multinational corporation that was trying to establish itself in Timor-Leste's mobile telecommunication market. The company lost the competition for a license to operate in Timor and ended up withdrawing from the country, though Guerra decided to stay behind to open an accounting-and-financial-consultancy firm in Dili, the nation's capital city. In February 2014, he became a consultant for the World Bank.

Guerra's supposed crime

According to Diário de Noticias:

A investigação foi alertada por comunicações bancárias que notificaram a saída de somas avultadas de Timor através de contas de Tiago Guerra e da sua mulher, cidadã chinesa. No total, o alegado desvio de fundos timorenses terá chegado ao total de 900 mil dólares.

The investigation is connected to the withdrawal of huge sums of money from Timor through the bank accounts of Tiago Guerra and his wife, a Chinese citizen. Allegedly, the funds may have reached the amount of 900,000 dollars.

On Facebook, Guerra's family has tried to explain the money transfers, offering clarifications about what it says is misleading information published elsewhere:

(…) 3- O que se diz à comunicação social e onde vão buscar a informação para dizer esta e outras incorrectas afirmações, nós não sabemos. Mas fomos avisados de que é algo que acontece muito e para o qual deveríamos estar preparados. (…)

(…) 3 – What information is circulated online and where this and other misinformation are obtained, we don't know. But we have been warned that this is something that often happens and that we should be prepared. (…)

Guerra's sister says journalists have failed to do their jobs, when it comes to her brother:

Infelizmente a 1ª notícia publicada foi absolutamente caluniosa e longe da verdade… e descobrimos nós que as notícias seguintes foram um copy/paste desta notícia. E assim se condena um homem inocente, por incompetência e irresponsabilidade por parte de quem se comprometeu a publicitar a verdade e depois não o faz.

Unfortunately the first information published about this case was downright libelous and far from the truth…and we have realized that the [mainstream] news followed suit, copying and pasting from those first posts. And thus, an innocent man finds himself condemned, thanks to the incompetence and irresponsibility of those in charge of publicizing the truth, but end up not doing it.

In an interview with a TV news station, Guerra's father said the bank transactions were part of his son's plan to move to Macau (his wife's hometown in China), where he hoped to relocate his family. Police suspect Guerra of misappropriating some $900,000 through his company's Macau bank account. According to his father, Guerra never stole any money and was only “caught in an international scam.” Guerra's father told SIC television that changes in his son's financial records were preparations for his family's move to China, saying his son wouldn't have advertised the family's moving plans, if he'd hoped to leave Timor-Leste secretly:

o meu filho não estava a fugir de Timor até porque organizou várias festas de despedida, entregou a casa ao senhorio e matriculou os filhos na escola Portuguesa de Macau com bastante antecedência.

My son was not fleeing Timor, and the proof is that he organized several farewell parties, handed the house back to the landlord, and enrolled his sons in the Portuguese school in Macau, in advance..

The supposedly misappropriated $900,000 that went through Guerra's Macau-company-branch bank account. The funding, which originated in Norway, was subsequently transferred to the United States, by order of the lawyer Bobby Boye, a Nigerian naturalized US citizen, whom the Norwegian government sent to Timor-Leste as an oil expert. The lawyer assisted Timor-Leste officials in several million-dollar contracts with the oil companies, but was later arrested by the FBI when he returned home, on suspicion of embezzling roughly $3.5 million from the Timor-Leste state.

The family launches a campaign

The family says that it is “tired” of waiting for Timorese justice, which is “still fragile”. After five months of silence and “trusting the justice system”, his relatives have decided to start an Facebook solidarity campaign to appeal to the world, demanding that Guerra be spared more time in jail before his trial begins. There's already a blog explaining his predicament and an online petition.

“Something must change”, says his sister:

Este homem tem que aguardar o decurso das investigações FORA da prisão. Já o disse inúmeras vezes e repito: Não se prende ninguém para se investigar! Investiga-se para prender!

This man must be given the right to await the outcome of the investigation OUTSIDE prison. I have said countless times and I say once again: It is not right to arrest someone prior to investigation! Investigate first and then arrest!

Guerra complains about a lack of diplomatic support from Portugal, though José Cesário, the foreign secretary for the Portuguese Communities, has told reporters that he “is following the situation”.

Stacey Addison, a US citizen who found herself “caught in the flawed Timorese legal system”, was detained around the same time as Guerra on the border between Indonesia and Timor-Leste. The veterinarian, later freed and now back home in the United States, has written a letter of support to Guerra, where she says she believes that “international pressure had a vital role in her release from jail,” and urges people “to sign the petition” to get Guerra released.

Guerra's family is most afraid that his health will deteriorate over the next year, if he's forced to remain in prison. Absent formal charges, there's not even any guilt to contest, though his relatives have emphasized his wellbeing, not his innocence.

If Guerra's family hopes to make a difference, it might need to act soon. According to the Portuguese media, Guerra was transferred to a hospital on March 20, possibly because he's become ill with dengue fever.

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