A roadmap towards a torture-free Fiji

IN August 2014, Vilikesa Soko, a 30-year-old husband, and father of three were beaten to death by police and military officers.

Soko and another man were suspects in a robbery. After being taken into custody, they have subjected to beatings so severe that the investigating officer in the case said they struggled to walk or talk.

Soko was hospitalized for his injuries before succumbing to a blood clot in his lung four days after his arrest. At the time, the circumstances of his sudden death were not disclosed. They only emerged when an autopsy report was leaked onto the internet. According to the report, Soko suffered multiple traumatic injuries, including to his genitals.

The court later found that crushed chilies were rubbed on sensitive areas of Soko’s body and he was raped with a stick. A year passed before any arrests were made. A charge of manslaughter was briefly entertained but dropped.

Finally, last month, the officers were convicted and sentenced for rape, sexual assault, and perverting the court of justice. There were delays in bringing the charges, and no one was held accountable for his death, but the verdict is a hopeful sign that the wall of impunity for such crimes is beginning to crumble.

In Fiji, accountability for torture and other ill-treatment has been the exception rather than the rule. In 2007, for example, three people died in custody after being severely beaten. In two of the cases, the perpetrators were arbitrarily released after serving less than a month of their sentence.

Amnesty International’s new report, Beating Justice: How Fiji’s security forces get away with torture, looks at several high-profile cases of torture and other ill-treatment. Our findings show that members of the police and military have resorted to a wide range of human rights violations, including beatings, rape, sexual assault, the use of crushed chilies, sticks, and batons, unleashing dogs, and shooting at people.

These acts were enabled by what Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama described in October 2016 as an “ingrained culture” of beatings, or the buturaki. The Prime Minister’s acknowledgment of the problem, along with statements of other senior officials that torture and other ill-treatment must end, should mark an important break from the past.

Torture does not just humiliate the victim. It also debases the torturer, by hollowing out their humanity and tarnishing the uniform they wear

Kate Schuetze, Pacific Researcher

In earlier years, senior officials conceded that torture and other ill-treatment took place, but sought to diminish the magnitude of these cruel practices, or excuse them because they supposedly constitute “a lesser evil”. At other times, they actively stood in the way of accountability by directly intervening in cases.

Torture and other ill-treatment often take place under the cover of darkness, where security officials have no fear of being seen and the victim cannot alert anyone to their plight. The only way to prevent this is by shining a light on detention practices and opening them up to independent scrutiny, creating a situation where no one has anything to hide and everyone can preserve their dignity.

Torture does not just humiliate the victim. It also debases the torturer, by hollowing out their humanity and tarnishing the uniform they wear. For a more just society, people must have confidence that they can trust the security forces to bring forward complaints of torture and other ill-treatment and know they will be investigated properly.

The security forces have an interest in living up to their image of professional and disciplined officers, worthy of not just protecting their own territory, but also carrying out peacekeeping operations abroad. Cases where officers have been promoted despite being suspected of acts of torture and other ill-treatment or sent abroad on UN missions to evade prosecution, only undermine the credibility of their institutions.

At the moment, there are also glaring gaps when it comes to Fiji’s legal framework. Torture is poorly defined in law, for example. It raises the threshold for torture well beyond international standards, and no one has been convicted under it.

The Constitution grants immunity for government actions that took place between 2006 and 2014, making it impossible to hold people accountable for acts of torture and other ill-treatment as recently as two years ago.

Changes in laws must go hand in hand with changes in institutions. As things stand, the police are left to police themselves. There needs to be an accessible and independent body, free of political influence, investigating and publicly reporting on complaints against them.

Under international law, torture and other ill-treatment is prohibited absolutely, in all circumstances, and without exception. Amnesty International has vigorously campaigned against torture since 1973.

Earlier this year, we said that the Australian Government’s actions on Nauru amounted to torture under international law.

The Australian Government brusquely rejected our and other independent observers’ findings, and sadly remains committed to its cruel policies.

Fiji, which ratified the UN convention against torture this year, can set a different example for the Pacific region.

Families should no longer suffer the fate of the Soko family, worrying that the arrest of a loved one might be the last time they see them alive. By taking the simple and achievable steps laid out in our report, Fiji can chart a roadmap toward a torture-free future.