Amnesty report says "ingrained culture" of torture in Fiji

By Harry Pearl SYDNEY (Reuters) - Fiji needs to withdraw its military from public security tasks and bring laws governing the use of force in line with international norms if it is to rid itself of torture, rights group Amnesty International said on Monday. An "ingrained culture of torture" has taken root among the South Pacific nation's security forces that has seen the widespread use of beatings, rape and sexual assault against criminals and escaped prisoners, Amnesty said in a new report. The NGO - which said it interviewed 48 people, including lawyers and civil society groups, and spoke with the government - alleged brutality by Fijian security forces had resulted in at least five deaths since 2006 and other severe injuries, including one person having their leg amputated. "Not only do the security forces know that torture is taking place, they have stood in the way of accountability," Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International's Pacific Researcher, said. Amnesty said a "culture of impunity" was reinforced by attitudes of top government officials, including Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who have expressed support for military and police officers accused of mistreatment. The Fijian government was not immediately available for comment on the report. Bainimarama, a former commander of the Fijian Military Forces, seized power from a civilian government in a military coup in 2006, but won a landslide victory at the polls in 2014. The military is still in control of key institutions and a number of decrees passed under martial law remain in place, preventing accountability for abuse committed by security forces, Amnesty said. Roko Tupou Draunidalo, president of the opposition National Federation Party, said torture flourished in Fiji because the rule of law was attacked at the highest level. "The leaders of the country have to show the rule of law is paramount. If they're seen to take short cuts, or get to power by means that are violent, obviously it will trickle down," she said. Among the report's recommendations were that Fiji remove the armed forces from public security tasks; that it repeal immunities preventing accountability of security forces and senior officials; and put in place independent civilian oversight of security forces and corrections. Amnesty said some positive steps were being taken to prevent torture and punish perpetrators, but more work was needed. "In Fiji, accountability for torture is the exception rather than the rule. This amounts to a climate of near-impunity," Schuetze said. (Reporting by Harry Pearl; Editing by Alan Crosby)