Amnesty International Report 2004 - Solomon Islands
|Publication Date||26 May 2004|
|Cite as||Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2004 - Solomon Islands , 26 May 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/40b5a20110.html [accessed 7 October 2015]|
Covering events from January - December 2003
Five years of conflict and lawlessness ended after a military-backed regional police force began a major operation in July to restore law and order, the economy and basic government services . Australian-led intervention forces facilitated the surrender of at least 3,700 weapons and the arrest of more than 400 people – the most significant steps towards ending violence and impunity since armed conflict began in 1998. Police officers and former rebels were charged with deliberate killings, torture, rape and other crimes. However, witnesses were reluctant to come forward while other suspected perpetrators remained at liberty. Prisons and police posts resumed operations and courts were overwhelmed with cases. Thousands of internally displaced people received assistance, and some began to return home to rebuild their lives and villages.
Prior to the armed intervention by the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) in July, civilians, public servants and officials including the Prime Minister and Police Minister suffered frequent violence and threats of extortion by police and former rebels.
In January, civilian leaders from the Weathercoast of Guadalcanal, the main island, publicly reported incidents of torture, rape, forced displacement and the burning of up to 175 village homes by both supporters and opponents of a police operation against rebel leader Harold Keke. The Solomon Star newspaper stopped reporting on the issue after delegates who had been quoted in the paper were threatened and ill-treated. Harold Keke's Guadalcanal Liberation Front (GLF), which together with other rebel groups had initiated civil conflict in 1998, was well-known for terrorizing settlers and villagers on Guadalcanal.
Senior police blamed special constables – former rebels recruited into the police force – for the abuses but made no arrests.
In February, retired Police Commissioner Fred Soaki, a highly respected member of the National Peace Council (NPC), a national body of community leaders which facilitates the peace process, was shot dead opposite the police station of Auki, capital of Malaita province. At the time of the shooting he was preparing to take part in a workshop on demobilization of special constables organized by the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Fred Soaki was an outspoken critic of police abusing their powers. In April, the Malaitan police sergeant charged with his murder escaped from custody; he had not been rearrested by the end of the year. The Auki police station had been a base for the paramilitary Malaita Eagle Force (MEF) which, like its Guadalcanal rebel opponents, was well known for torture and deliberate killings.
Meanwhile, armed violence and serious human rights abuses intensified on Guadalcanal's Weathercoast, where the GLF killed at least 19 people in March and April. Nathaniel Sado, a peace delegate sent by an (Anglican) Church of Melanesia Brotherhood, died from injuries apparently suffered after days of torture. Fellow Melanesian Brothers, including experienced and respected human rights defenders, were sent to investigate his death in April. The GLF took seven of them hostage and killed six of them – Robin Lindsay, Francis Tofi, Alfred Hilly, Patteson Gatu, Ini Partabatu and Tony Sirihi. The bodies of three of them, found in September, showed signs of beatings and torture.
At Marasa in June, GLF fighters reportedly forced scores of terrified villagers to watch a student and a young man being tortured with sticks and stones. One was beheaded and the other reportedly died of his injuries. More than 50 village homes were burned down and food gardens were destroyed.
By July, reports of such violence had displaced around 1,000 people along the Weathercoast, in addition to those displaced in previous years. Another 1,300, nearly half of them children, fled to live in makeshift camps and villages on Guadalcanal's north coast, straining local food resources. By the end of the year, hundreds of people remained in camps which lacked basic sanitation facilities.
Days before the arrival of the first RAMSI officers in July, Harold Keke declared a cease-fire and released the first three of seven Melanesian Brotherhood delegates taken hostage in June. In August, he was the first among prominent rebel and police leaders to surrender to RAMSI. Court proceedings were continuing at the end of the year. Harold Keke remained detained, initially at an undisclosed location because of fears for his safety.
Operation 'Helping a Friend'
International perceptions of the Solomon Islands as a weak or "failing state" which threatened regional security led Australia in April to accede to requests by the Solomon Islands government for armed forces to be sent to help restore law and order. The Australian authorities had previously rejected such requests.
From April, Australia used the intervention mandate under the regional Biketawa Declaration of 2000 to engage the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Vanuatu in forming RAMSI. RAMSI's Operation "Helpem Fren" (Helping a Friend) was the first regional intervention in the Pacific and regarded as a possible blueprint for future armed operations in the region outside a UN mandate.
From July, around 2,500 military, police and civilian personnel, supported by warships and aircraft, were deployed on the Solomon Islands. As RAMSI prepared its deployment, church and community leaders called for a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the roots of the conflict and unresolved human rights abuses. At the end of the year, international donors and non-governmental organizations were discussing resuming assistance programs stalled by the conflict, and improvements in the security situation were facilitating the restoration of basic public services such as courts, clinics and schools.
The struggle against impunity
In January, newly appointed Police Commissioner William Morell pledged to make human rights one of his top priorities. He took over a police service paralysed by a widespread fear of influential criminals in leading positions, including within the police. By March, some 800 special constables – mostly former rebels – had been demobilized under a UNDP-assisted program. Another 300 special constables were stood down in October.
Working with the Royal Solomon Islands Police (RSIP), RAMSI arrested more than 400 people and set up or reopened police posts and prisons. At least 110 police officers were sacked, stood down or retired. Another 33, including a Chief Superintendent, were arrested for serious human rights violations and charged with murder, assault, intimidation and other crimes including sexual violence against women. Most MEF leaders who signed the 2000 Townsville Peace Accord and who had since controlled the government were arrested. More than 660 illegally held military-style weapons and 3,100 other firearms were surrendered and destroyed. RAMSI also started a capacity-building program for prosecution, court and prison services which were struggling to cope with a rapidly increasing caseload.
The most senior politician to be brought to justice was Communications Minister Daniel Fa'afunua. He allegedly kicked a RAMSI policewoman in the face after she arrested him for causing bodily harm to his former wife. The Minister, who had close links with the MEF, was remanded in custody.
Despite RAMSI's initial success in restoring basic law and order, fears remained that witnesses or their relatives could face intimidation for assisting police investigations into human rights abuses or fraud, as prominent politicians and businessmen associated with such crimes were not charged.