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In PNG’s barbarous prisons, where is the voice of Australia?

By Kevin Childs - posted Thursday, 23 September 2010

What are the chances of Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd applying his famous concentration to Papua New Guinea, in particular the level of torture by police?

Australia gives almost $460 million a year to PNG but seems to do little about the staggering level of violence in places such as police lock-ups, where people not convicted of any crime may be held for months. Some die in custody.

Evidence has now been found of police deliberately disabling those suspected of a serious crime or who escape custody About 40 per cent of people in PNG live in poverty, that is, on less than 90 cents a day and it has the highest rate of reported HIV cases in the region. In 2009, an estimated 98,757 people or 2.56 per cent of the adult population had HIV-AIDS.


Four years ago Human Rights Watch reported the prevalence of police violence, with children and others in police custody often raped and tortured.

“Police rapes and torture are crimes, not methods of crime control,” Zama Coursen-Neff, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Children’s Rights Division, then reported. “These brutal tactics have destroyed public confidence in the police.”

Now a little-publicised report by the United Nations has found an appalling incidence use of torture and other abuse by police, including systematic beatings of prisoners on arrest or soon after.

“Very often beatings are inflicted by the police as a form of punishment of suspects, reflecting complete disrespect for the presumption of innocence and the dignity of persons suspected of crimes,” says a UN Special Rapporteur. The Rapporteur, Manfred Nowak, was on the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances; he is a UN expert on missing people in the former Yugoslavia and on legal questions on enforced disappearances; and a judge at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is Professor of Constitutional Law and International Human Rights at the University of Vienna and Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights.

While expressing gratitude for the willingness of the PNG Government to open up to independent scrutiny as a means for assessing torture and ill-treatment, he was disappointed that at the highest political level, both in government and in Parliament, his mission was not given appropriate attention.

He made unannounced visits to places of detention and held confidential interviews with selected detainees. “However, in Buka Police Station, an intelligence officer from Port Moresby, Thadeus Yangavi, verbally assaulted members of my team and even attempted to physically attack them ...”


He said the spread of firearms exacerbated the problems of violent crime and tribal fighting. He saw how minor occurrences quickly grew into violent incidents.

“I am concerned that the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary is not always in a position to enforce the rule of law due to insufficient human and financial resources, a high level of corruption and unprofessionalism, difficulties in accessing remote rural areas and a lack of political will. These deficiencies have led to private security companies carrying out some of the main duties of the police. The fact that there are far more private security officers than police officers in the country is a worrying sign of police weakness and a failure of the State to provide security and freedom from fear to its people.”

Torture and ill-treatment

“Widely practiced methods include beatings with car fan belts, bush knives, gun butts, iron rods, wooden sticks, stones, punching and kicking, used mainly to punish and intimidate detainees and to establish authority. While I did not find more sophisticated and brutal methods of torture, understood in the classical sense of this term, there is no doubt that police beatings often reached the level of torture, as defined in the UN Convention against Torture. This worrying fact has been corroborated by medical evidence in a high number of cases.”

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Click here to find more about the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur; and here.

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About the Author

Kevin Childs is a freelance journalist and author, and a member of the board of the United Nations Association of Australia, Victoria.

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