Dozens of people were ill-treated by police and military officers during mass arrests under a four-week state of emergency. Conditions in some prisons amounted to ill-treatment.

A four-week state of emergency, suspending most constitutional human rights guarantees, was declared in January following widespread rioting and looting in the capital, Port Vila. Protests were prompted by a report on official corruption by the Ombudsman. Former opposition leader Donald Kalpokas became Prime Minister after elections in March, called to restore political stability.

In June the new government pledged to introduce a new Ombudsman's Act which would include provisions for human rights monitoring. The Ombudsman's Act had been repealed in November 1997 by the former government after a failed attempt to remove the Ombudsman from office. In November the Ombudsman criticized provisions in the proposed legislation which would limit her independence by allowing government interference. A new Leadership Code law to make politicians more accountable came into effect in September.

Dozens of people reported that they were kicked and beaten by military and police officers during the arrest of some 500 criminal suspects under the state of emergency. At least 200 of them were held for up to three days in conditions amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Some were denied medical attention and investigators from the office of the Ombudsman were refused permission to visit prisons. More than 20 people sought medical treatment after their release, and three were admitted to hospital.

The police started to investigate 16 complaints of ill-treatment after a man nearly died from internal injuries inflicted by military officers while he was in custody. However, no officer was suspended from active duty.

As a result of police investigations, 18 police officers were charged with "intentional assault" of prisoners; all pleaded not guilty. By the end of the year, none had been convicted.

Most people arrested under the state of emergency were held in conditions described in a government report as "extremely poor" and "dangerous" as a result of earthquake damage, with "considerable overcrowding" and a lack of adequate facilities for women. Most prison cells were decaying and frequently wet during rain and had no lighting and poor ventilation. Food and prison medical services were inadequate.

In June all male prisoners in Port Vila Central Prison were transferred to an alternative prison, known as "the former British prison", because of concerns about the structural safety of the building. However, two female prisoners, who also asked to be evacuated, continued to be held there.

As a result of the evacuation, most of Vanuatu's male prisoners were held in inhuman and often overcrowded conditions. Convicted prisoners were held with those awaiting trial and there were no facilities to separate juveniles from adults. Despite improvised repairs to cells, conditions remained extremely poor; for example, prisoners were unable to sleep because rain leaked onto their beds.

An Amnesty International delegate visited the Port Vila area in February to investigate prison conditions and reports of ill-treatment. Its report issued in September, Vanuatu: No safe place for prisoners, recommended urgent measures to improve prison conditions and police and prison complaints mechanisms. It urged the government to seek assistance from the international community. A joint statement by the Vanuatu government and police welcomed Amnesty International's report and pledged to implement its recommendations.

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