Gordon Peake is a Visiting Fellow at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, ANU.

Interpreter readers with long memories may remember my name from a series of pieces on Timor-Leste posted a year or so ago. The articles included profiles of the campaign to elect war hero Taur Matan Ruak as President, an interview with a Timorese militiaman indicated for crimes against humanity, and the story of a World War II veteran who fought with the Australians against the Japanese

These were fun to write but also served two important purposes. First, they gave shape to ideas that I wanted to explore further in a book I was writing on the colourful characters – Timorese and foreigners – that are building this new nation. Second, all the positive feedback I received gave me the confidence to believe I actually could write 75,000 or so words about this country that has endlessly fascinated me for years, and which I hold in such deep affection.

With a huge sigh of relief, I can report that the project is now completed. Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles and Secrets from Timor-Leste will hit bookshops and e-reader stores in September with the help of Scribe Publications. I owe The Interpreter a big debt of thanks in getting me out of the blocks. 

The book is a blend of narrative history, travelogue and personal reminiscences based on four years in Dili. As Australia announced an increase in its aid spending in Tuesday's budget, the Timor-Leste experience should give us some food for thought about what works and what doesn't when it comes to foreign assistance.

For example, in one of the chapters in the book, which emerged from another Interpreter article, I write about Rogerio Lobato, a gregarious polyglot former Minister of Interior and ex-jailbird. Despite his fall from grace, I show just how connected (and thus influential) he is by kinship and history to many in the small and tightly bound Timorese elite. This byzantine tangle of family relationships, friendships, romances, and antagonisms render the application of concepts such as 'good governance' extremely difficult.

A case involving Rogerio's niece will be a test of one central objective of Australia's development assistance: the rule of law. The woman in question, former Justice Minister Lucia Lobato, seems to be waging a campaign from inside prison to undermine the justice system over which she used to preside.

The story begins with her mislaying her mobile phone in 2008, the phone eventually landing in the hands of Jose Belo, a crusading investigative journalist and Dili's answer to Bob Woodward. The phone contained chummy text messages between Lucia and the head of a company that won a series of contracts being tendered by her Ministry. Although probably a cause for resignation in many other parts of the world, Lobato threatened Belo with jail for defamation, a case that was eventually dropped. She remained Minister of Justice for another three years, loudly denying the allegations before her immunity from prosecution was eventually taken away.

Last year, Lobato was found guilty of pocketing money relating to the contracts. A succession of appeals were unsuccessful and she was sent to prison for five years, giving her plenty of opportunity to check out the couture of the prison guards' uniforms, the very contract which had landed her there in the first place. 

The conviction seemed a validation of the Timorese justice system's ability to try a case involving a member of the political elite. But now, only a few months into her sentence, Lobato is doing her best to cut short her prison tenure. She's written to the bishops, and an opposition MP alleged she has been calling and SMSing Timor's chief justice (you think she would have learned her lesson about mobile phones by now).

She's been rushed to hospital in Dili complaining of high blood pressure and there are reports of her needing to go to Singapore for treatment. Last week, rumours swirled on a prominent Timorese blog that her family was lobbying for her to be pardoned.

Severe allergic reaction to incarceration in Timor-Leste's jails is something of a family condition. Her uncle Rogerio himself was flown out of the country in 2007 courtesy of a Lear Jet lent by the government of Kuwait. Former president Jose Ramos Horta subsequently pardoned him.

To be sure, Lucia Lobato has, like many Timorese, led a life of almost inconceivable tragedy. She once told an interviewer that she had lost her mother and all her siblings during the occupation; they were rounded up, flown away in an Indonesian helicopter and never seen again. She was a dogged campaigner for Timorese independence for many years.

But what happens in this case will be a test of the strength of the institutions that she as Justice Minister committed herself to strengthen. Wiggling out of jail time hardly seems to square with the lofty statements attributed to her office in the 2011-2030 justice sector strategic plan:

The justice sector plays a crucial role in the efforts made to consolidate peace and stability, guarantee the Rule of Law and promote accountability and transparency. 

Were these words dreamt up just to satisfy donors or were they what she really believed?

It's too late to add these latest shenanigans to my book but there are many ways to follow the story. Jose Belo still acts as a one-man accountability machine with his boisterous Tempo Semanal newspaper and website. The Diak ka Lae blog is always thoughtful and the news aggregating website Timor Hau Nian Doben, which publishes in English, Tetun and Portuguese, is also worth checking.

Photo by Flickr user scratchpost.