(Amnesty International, Mar. 1) - Serious human rights violations have marred a Solomon Islands police operation against militant leader and former policeman Harold Keke.

In 1998, his Guadalcanal Liberation Front (GLF) helped initiate civil war, terrorizing civilians on Guadalcanal, the country's main island. Since September 2002, police Special Constables (SCs) and civilian volunteers armed by police have joined regular police officers in operations against the GLF and its supporters.

Since then, SCs and civilian volunteers have tortured suspected GLF supporters, burned down their homes and killed their livestock. Suspects have been beaten in custody. Since December 2002, SCs and volunteers have tortured wives of suspected GLF supporters, severely beating some with heated wire and "bush cane".

Villagers who told journalists about the beating have themselves been threatened by people involved in the police operation.  Such violations present a challenge for the new Police Commissioner from the UK, appointed in January 2003, who has pledged to prioritize stability, defence of human rights and professional policing. While a few senior police officers openly opposed a foreign commissioner, the majority seems eager to end a legacy of unpunished abuses of power, which have often benefited people in positions of influence.

From 1998 to 2000, economic inequality fuelled ethnic conflict on Guadalcanal. A two-year civil war displaced some 30,000 people, paralyzed the regular police and devastated the economy and health and school systems.  Following a peace accord in 2000, the government allowed an estimated 2,000 militants to keep their guns, escape justice and enlist as SCs.

In parts of the country, SCs have cooperated with police in restoring law and order. Others soon abused their status and became notorious for their role in widespread extortion and human rights violations. By February 2003, at least 1,100 SCs, nicknamed "Special Criminals," remained on the police payroll. 

Under a UN-assisted peace program, most SCs are offered incentives to demobilize. Among them are people responsible for torture, rape, extortion, intimidation and deliberate and arbitrary killings. Their guns and influence have so far prevented the regular police from ensuring they are brought to justice.

Successful demobilization will therefore be crucial for restoring law and order and for protecting civilians from human rights abuses.

Former Police Commissioner Frederick Soaki was assassinated in February while helping to prepare a demobilization workshop. A masked gunman shot him dead as he sat in a hotel lobby opposite Auki police station in the company of his demobilization team. He was a highly respected member of the newly founded National Peace Council, which was set up to foster disarmament and mediate local disputes.

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