East Timor Kicks Out Judges Over ConocoPhillips Tax Fight


MELBOURNE, Nov 5 (Reuters) - East Timor has ordered five foreign judges out of the country after a court ruled in favour of U.S. oil and gas producer ConocoPhillips in cases tied to $236 million in disputed tax assessments.

ConocoPhillips operates the Bayu Undan gas field in the Timor Sea between East Timor and Australia. Royalties and taxes from the field are the main source of revenue for East Timor, one of the world's poorest nations.

The young country, which won independence from Indonesia in 2002, had hired international judges and prosecutors to beef up its judicial system, but Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has been unhappy about the rulings on the tax cases, among other issues.

The government's move on the judiciary raises concerns about the rule of law in East Timor, which needs foreign companies to develop its oil and gas resources.

An East Timor embassy spokeswoman in Canberra, Australia, confirmed on Wednesday that five judges and two prosecutors had been ordered to leave the country on Tuesday. She said it was not yet clear when they would depart.

ConocoPhillips has challenged the government in 28 cases over tax assessments that were higher than what the company says it owes, and has won all seven that have been decided so far.

The government's move to expel the judges and prosecutors was done according to the law to "protect the interests of our people", East Timor Foreign Minister Jose Luis Guterres said in an interview on Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.


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