Saturday, Apr 19th

Last update:08:44:14 AM GMT

You are here: News National AFP in Solomons under fire

AFP in Solomons under fire

E-mail Print
   HONIARA ­- The role of the Australian Federal Police in the Solomon Islands is under fire after a series of bungles and shortcomings that seriously damage the mission's claims of success.

   After deployment in 2003, the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) and its Participating Police Force (PPF) restored peace and stability to the Pacific island group, ending years of armed civil conflict.

   But eight years later, after operations costing a billion Australian dollars, tough questions are being raised about the effectiveness of the AFP-dominated law enforcement program.

   The AFP and RAMSI declined to answer questions but a RAMSI annual report tabled in March this year said 2009 was "a challenging year for the law and justice program with limited progress made".

   The tone is very different from the fanfare of RAMSI's first two years, when it notched up around 4000 arrests for crimes including murder, rape, robbery and fraud, and more than 3700 weapons were seized.

   In that period, the PPF investigated and pursued numerous "big fish" linked to dozens of high-profile crimes committed during bloody ethnic feuds between 1998 to 2003.

   This show of force led to what became known as the 'tension trials', which even caught up Sir Allan Kemakeza, a former prime minister and the very leader who invited RAMSI to rescue the struggling nation.

   But RAMSI has declined to say how many convictions resulted from the widely reported arrests.

   Some of the alleged 'gangsters' it sought to neutralise have since been elected to parliament.

   Canberra-based lawyer Stephen Lawrence, who as a Solomons public defender represented numerous figures pursued by RAMSI, says the tension trials have been "shameful" and "a comprehensive failure".

   "Would RAMSI be quiet on convictions if they had good numbers to trumpet?" he asked.

   Rather than objective notions of the rule of law, RAMSI's criminal justice response became an "attempt to achieve a form of political cleansing" of those deemed to be at odds with Australia's national interests, Mr Lawrence said.

   "The rhetoric that Australia intervened to end the conflict is incorrect," he said.

   "The Australians came at least three years after the peak of violence when it became politically opportune in the broader context of a `war on terror'."

   Australia feared having a failed state on its doorstep, potentially leading to terrorist infiltration, refugee flows and transnational crime, as well as possible interference by a foreign power, Mr Lawrence said.

   A specific case of AFP bungling came to light on August 19, when Solomon Islands High Court judge David Cameron threw out evidence because AFP officers investigating a murder had "forgot" basic procedures, including reading the suspect their rights.

   Justice Cameron found there had been "deficiencies of process" by police investigating the 2003 murder of Brother Nathaniel Sado.

   Former Solomons public solicitor Ken Averre has said a succession of courtroom failures raised concerns about competence and unlawful conduct on the part of the RAMSI police.

   "There were numerous findings by the courts of unacceptable and unlawful conduct on the part of PPF (largely AFP) in the investigation of matters," he said, writing in 2008 for the Australian National University publication State Society and Governance in Melanesia.

   "The reality of the police actions in the intervention calls into question the AFP's training and whether RAMSI has provided a proper example of compliance with the law."

   Mr Averre raised the examples of acquitted MPs Charles Dausabea and Nelson Ne'e, who spent prolonged periods in jail charged with orchestrating riots in Honiara after the unpopular announcement of Synder Rini as prime minister in April 2006.

   During their October 2007 trial, the court was told of secret written and financial agreements between two key witnesses and a former Solomon Police Commissioner.

   "The agreements were in a form that violated judicial rulings on such matters and attempts to keep them secret clearly violated Solomon Islands law governing disclosure of relevant information to defence lawyers," Mr Averre writes.

   Former Solomons foreign minister, Alex Bartlett, who faced but was not convicted on a number of riot-related charges, wanted the AFP investigators on his case sacked and accused them of framing him by using "conmen" willing to tell lies.

   "I found the investigation method totally deplorable and unacceptable in a democratic society which upholds justice," he said.

   In 2007 a court heard Australian officers had unlawfully offered an inducement to a suspect in the murder trial of Canberra AFP officer Adam Dunning and the attempted murder of three other PPF officers.

   The accused was immediately set free and another four suspects were all later acquitted after the judge said police had failed to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

   "The case was interesting because the police built their case around the most unreliable of evidence (cell confessions) and the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence," Mr Averre writes.

   In 2005 the High Court excluded from evidence the admissions of a number of men facing trial for armed robbery because AFP officers had unfairly interviewed the suspects and denied them access to a lawyer.

   The judge was scathing of the AFP investigation and said: "These two officers see nothing unfair about the process.

   "This is the most astonishing and at the same time disappointing evidence the court has heard so far in this trial".

   Mr Averre said the PPF could achieve more if it did not "close ranks," engaged in meaningful analysis of its failings and consulted with defence lawyers on the causes of these problems.

   "What would be the reaction in Australia if a series of similarly high-profile cases led to acquittals, following police bungles and impropriety?"

   "Resignations would be demanded."

   The PPF has shifted from its original focus of chasing and catching wrongdoers to one of assisting and training local police, a role it expects to continue for another three years.

   The 2009 RAMSI annual report said: "The law cannot currently be administered without further assistance and it appears unlikely to be achievable by 2013."

   The report also said the remaining 20 tension trials would not be completed until 2017.

   AAP's request for an interview with RAMSI boss Graeme Wilson in Honiara  was denied because he was busy during recent elections.

   Questions regarding procedural bungles were passed by AFP officers to RAMSI, which in turn referred queries to the Solomon Islands government.

   "It would not be appropriate for RAMSI to comment on the decisions of the courts," a spokeswoman said.

By Ilya Gridneff of AAP