By Professor Biman Prasad

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, March 26, 2009) – On a daily basis we hear and read stories of home invasions, robbery with violence and intimidation of innocent citizens by criminals. The most recent was a case of a family in Dilkusha, Nausori.

Apart from people being brutally beaten, women have been raped and men killed in the sanctity of their home.

In some cases, family members bore witness to their loved ones being brutalised, raped or murdered, which added to their psychological trauma.

Home invasions are so rampant that people are resigned to the fact that it is just a matter of time before someone breaks into their house and violently robs them.

The criminals are very bold and casual.

They conduct robberies with impunity, even telling victims what to do to help them select items from their home.

They ask for their car keys, bank card pin number and walk away saying goodbye to the victims.

In Fiji, such crimes are becoming an accepted part of life.

Police seem to be treating them as 'business as usual' when the crimes should be their priority.

It is a disturbing trend and raises some serious questions about the Government and police force's commitment.

Are the Government and the police able to comprehend the gravity of the situation?

Are they aware of the impact of violent crime on Fiji's reputation with investors?

Do they know that the country is increasingly being compared to Papua New Guinea where marauding rascals have become the bane of society?

Are they aware how scared ordinary citizens are about violent crime, so scared that they no longer feel safe in their home, let alone on the streets at night?

My answer to the above questions would be that the police and the Government have yet to fully comprehend the seriousness of violent crime in Fiji.

As I mentioned, they are treating it like 'business as usual'.

There was no mention, let alone assessment, of violent crime in the Budget debate.

But the evidence of its impact is hard to ignore.

We now see barbed wire and razor-wire fences in some houses.

Security guards and sophisticated security alarms have become a must for those who can afford them.

The only difference with PNG is that criminal gangs in Fiji do not have guns, yet.

Why is robbery and violence so casually treated by the criminals? Why are people losing confidence in the police?

The answers to these questions can be traced back to the days of the 1987 coups and the 2000 madness where the police force was basically destroyed in terms of physical capability and attitude toward criminals in society.

When the coup took place, we were given assurances that reducing crime would be one of the key strategies for the interim Government. Commissioner Teleni himself made this commitment. Now he has been busy on a spiritual crusade and has perhaps forgotten about his pledge and the interim Government's pledge. Some ill informed commentators seem to think that Commissioner Teleni is right in pursuing a spiritual crusade.

His ability to get the police force to effectively investigate some of the high profile cases has given confidence to the public.

However, when it comes to intimidation, robbery and violence on a daily basis, the police force has failed to effectively impose its control.

Before the 1987 coups, police officers used to pursue criminals and would-be criminals and their actions were more geared toward prevention.

What we see today is that the police officers have become 'after event' investigators, interviewing victims and carrying out investigations, which in the majority of cases leads to nothing.

In the face of police handicaps, criminals are getting more daring and sophisticated.

As in PNG, they are now organised in groups of 5-10 people and often use tools such as pinch bars and bolt cutters.

What is frightening is that they are not the least bit concerned about creating a racket or neighbours raising the alarm.

This is because they are apparently well aware of the transportation and manpower problems of the police.

They know that they will have made their getaway long before the police will arrive at the scene.

It seems, from stories from families who have been robbed; that criminal gangs are well organised and possibly have links with some police offers and prison officials.

There is also rumour that prisoners are part of the gangs, they are let out at night to take part in the activities then return to the comfort of their prison cells before dawn.

The police force has to stop the slide.

It has to reconsider its strategies.

Crime involving robbery with violence and home invasions should be at the top of the priority list.

More funds and resources need to be committed to pursuing and bringing to justice people who commit these crimes.

The police need to improve their intelligence network about these criminal gangs so that they can be confronted and pursued before more crimes are committed, not after the act has been done.

The court has to take a much harsher view of robbery with violence.

The court should also not release the robbers on bail even if the conditions inside the prison are not acceptable.

These criminals don't deserve any sympathy and they should not receive it from the court.

The Government should also look at the penal code and dish out harsher penalties for repeat offenders of robbery with violence.

While some may argue about the causes of criminal activities such as unemployment and poverty, these criminal gangs are not the poor.

These are groups who have made crime their business and they do it without consideration of any other issues.

The real poor and unemployed are in most cases not the criminal gangs so we should pursue these gangs who are terrorising the communities.

One area in which police have been particularly slack is confronting, arresting and charging people who drink in public places, who loiter and who investigate targets which later are robbed with violence.

The activities of criminal gangs have also contributed significantly to the instability in the country.

The cost of living, the cost of doing business in urban centres has increased because of the extra investment that businesses and families have to make to secure their homes with security features and employing security personnel.

The Government and the police have to realise that we are under siege from criminals.

It is hard to get a decent night's sleep because of the fear criminal gangs have instilled in our hearts and minds.

The sanctity of our home and our privacy is not guaranteed any more.

Unless the police force, the court and the Government wake up very quickly to address this increasing menace, we could be heading for a disaster and may join other countries such as PNG.

So let us act now!

* The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the University of the South Pacific where the author is Professor of Economics and Dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics. These are the exclusive views of the author and are published by this newspaper on that sole understanding.

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