The decision by East Timor’s courts to convict and jail former interior minister, Rogerio Lobato, on charges of manslaughter and arming gangs last year should come as a welcome sign that this small, teetering state can still pull back from the brink. In particular, gangs that have been responsible for most of the recent violence and destruction should in part be placated.

Lobato was sentenced yesterday to seven and a half years on five charges, including four charges of manslaughter and one of unlawfully using firearms to disturb public order. The sentence was handed down by a panel of three international judges, which should strengthen its sense of impartiality, even if it begs the question of capacity of local judges.

While the sentence substantiates claims against Lobato that he was directly involved in last year’s violence, the term of the sentence might be considered by some to be too light.

In particular, the questionably named National Movement for Unity, Justice and Peace (MUNJP), which has been behind much of the recent violence, might question the perceived leniency of the sentence given the multiple convictions for manslaughter. Questions will also likely be again asked about the circumstances in which charges against former prime minister Mari Alkatiri were dropped.

However, the MUNJP has its own political agenda of outright opposition to the Fretilin government, and includes among its senior figures some of whom are linked to opposition parties. Chief judge Ivo Rosa’s assessment that Lobato had behaved in an anti-social and anti-democratic way could also be levelled at a few other of East Timor’s political actors.

East Timor prosecutors dropped charges against Alkatiri, citing a lack of evidence. In exchange, Alkatiri agreed to cooperate with further investigations into the violence. In this, the already unpopular Lobato can be seen as the government’s ‘fall guy’, even though responsibility for last year’s civil unrest appears to have extended well beyond his personal reach.

The question now will be the extent to which Fretilin tries to limit the fall-out from Lobato’s conviction in the face of the impending elections. In this it will have to balance a desire for as much distance as possible from the convicted felon with a need to ensure he does not now discuss more freely what he knows about who gave what order to arm the hit squads.

A half-decent opposition in East Timor should be able to make great political capital out of this. And that would be a lot smarter politics than letting the gangs potentially derail an electoral process that together they now look like having a chance of winning.