(New York) - Police violence against children remains rampant in Papua New Guinea, despite recent juvenile justice reform efforts, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Children and others in police custody are often raped and tortured.

“Police rapes and torture are crimes, not methods of crime control,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Children’s Rights Division. “These brutal tactics have destroyed public confidence in the police.”

Another problem, Human Rights Watch said, is that that police routinely lock children up with adults, even when separate space is available, placing them at risk of rape and other forms of violence. Police rarely provide children with medical care, even when seriously injured.

The 50-page report, “Still Making Their Own Rules: Ongoing Impunity for Police Beatings, Rape, and Torture in Papua New Guinea” is a follow-up to Human Rights Watch’s 2005 report on police violence against children. The report tracks developments in 2005 and 2006, and determines that abusive officials rarely face punishment. For example:

• Police officers opened fire on unarmed school boys in October 2005. Two officers were charged, but police have not sent the cases to the public prosecutor.
• Police beat and gang-raped girls and women during a well-documented raid on an alleged brothel in March 2004. To date, no police officers have been punished.
• Corrections officers at Buimo prison beat and sexually abused boy detainees by forcing them to have anal sex with each other in January 2006. The officers continue to work at the prison.

Although dismissals and prosecutions are not completely unheard of, they are so rare compared with the scale of violations as to nullify any deterrent effect. Papua New Guineans describe police violence as so common that they consider it normal; however, that does not mean that it is acceptable. People around the country have told Human Rights Watch that they want a police force that protects, not endangers, them.

“By choosing not to punish abusive police, Papua New Guinea’s leaders leave ordinary people as afraid of the police as they are of criminals,” Coursen-Neff said. “This problem will not diminish unless police perpetrators are prosecuted.”

The violence may contribute to Papua New Guinea’s rapidly escalating HIV epidemic. With an estimated 140,000 people living with HIV/AIDS, Papua New Guinea has the highest infection rate in the South Pacific. Police abuse – particularly the targeting of sex workers and boys and men perceived to be homosexual, as well as harassment of people carrying condoms – may worsen the epidemic by undermining HIV prevention efforts.

Human Rights Watch found small signs of progress in the juvenile justice system in 2006. Police established a two-person unit to monitor police treatment of children, and a few individual police officers stepped forward to implement this system. In addition, several juvenile magistrates promised to implement checks on abuses. Outside of the government, some nongovernmental organizations are attempting to address aspects of police violence. Although these are promising developments, they have yet to produce demonstrable change in police treatment of children.

“Progress in juvenile justice is encouraging but extremely fragile,” Coursen-Neff said. “The government must do all it can to entrench these developments and avoid falling back to business as usual.”

Australia is Papua New Guinea’s largest foreign donor, but direct aid to the police remains under negotiation, following the withdrawal of Australian Federal Police in 2005. Substantial past aid to police failed to reduce violence and other human rights violations by officers.

“Papua New Guinea and Australia should make sure that protection for the human rights of children and marginalized groups is at the forefront of future assistance to the police,” said Coursen-Neff.