Buimo prison. 

© 2006 Zama Coursen-Neff/Human Rights Watch

Seventy-seven prisoners escaped from Papua New Guinea’s notorious Buimo prison last week and 17 ended up in the morgue. PNG authorities need to investigate and provide answers.

Police reported that 77 prisoners escaped from the prison in the provincial city of Lae on May 12, and that 3 had been recaptured, 57 were at large, and 17 dead.  Police released no details of how the escape happened or how the men died. 

This is not the first time prisoners have been killed during an escape at Buimo prison. In February 2016, police and prison guards shot and killed 12 prisoners and wounded 18 when 94 prisoners escaped from the same prison. According to news reports, a Correctional Service report had highlighted overcrowding and poor security as factors leading to previous breakouts. Human Rights Watch has also documented poor conditions and widespread violence in detention facilities in PNG, including at Buimo prison.

The police response to the killings has been muted. While failing to account for the deaths, the police’s sole focus seems to be on recapturing prisoners who remain at large. Arresting escaped prisoners is difficult and dangerous work, but it doesn’t give authorities a license to kill. It’s important authorities investigate the prison break and the killings and hold anyone who used unnecessary or excessive force to account.

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, PNG has an obligation to respect the rights to life, bodily integrity, and security, and to investigate all potential violations.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which sets out accepted international standards on the use of force in law enforcement situations, provide that law enforcement officials shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable the authorities should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Lethal force should only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life.