Published: March 9, 2013
SYDNEY, Australia — The nine minutes of shaky cellphone footage are hard to watch, not because of the quality but because of the content. A young man lies handcuffed on the bed of a pickup truck, wailing as he is beaten repeatedly with a thick baton. Later, his assailant switches to a metal rod. A snarling dog drags another victim past his laughing attackers, who punch the man relentlessly.
The attackers in the video are, according to officials in the Pacific island nation of Fiji, officers in the country’s police force. On Friday, Fiji’s military leader, Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, also known as Frank Bainimarama, addressed the video for the first time since it surfaced on YouTube last week.
“At the end of the day, I will stick by my men, by the police officers or anyone else that might be named in this investigation,” Mr. Bainimarama told local Web site Fijivillage. “We cannot discard them just because they’ve done their duty in looking after the security of this nation and making sure we sleep peacefully at night.”
Mr. Bainimarama seized power in Fiji, a former British colony made up of about 330 islands in the central Pacific Ocean, in a 2006 coup — the country’s fourth since independence in 1970. He has insisted that military rule was the only way to ensure an end to the spasms of political and ethnic violence that have so often destabilized the country. Since then, however, accusations of human rights abuses have dogged his government, souring relations with its traditional allies, Australia and New Zealand.
In early 2012, Mr. Bainimarama lifted a state of emergency that had been in place since he abrogated the Constitution in 2009, and he announced that free elections would be held by 2014. But in January he scrapped a draft constitution that had been seen as crucial to any return to democracy. The police even seized hundreds of copies of the document and burned them in front of their architect, an internationally renowned legal scholar.
A spokesman for the United States State Department, speaking under the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the news media, condemned the actions caught on the video in unusually frank terms even as he said Washington welcomed an investigation promised by Fiji’s government.
The human rights group Amnesty International issued a statement last week calling the episode a clear case of torture.
“The humiliation of the men and their injuries evident in the video is very serious,” Roseann Rife, an Amnesty spokeswoman, said in the statement. “Forced to undress and harassed by a dog, as men nearby laugh, it is difficult to watch. The subsequent brutal beating with batons is harrowing. It is torture.”
Mr. Bainimarama, whose government has grown increasingly antagonistic toward foreign critics, played down the accusations and assailed nongovernmental organizations that took issue with is government.
“NGOs are paid by the international community to jump up and down every time we do something,” he said. “That’s their job, they’re paid to do that by the people that fund them.”
Still, the video has provoked anger among governments in the region. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said Friday in a statement that the organization was “shocked” by the video and described the episode as torture. A vote condemning the attack is expected to come before New Zealand’s Parliament as early as Tuesday.
“All of us have heard stories that this has been happening and happening for a long time,” Phil Goff, a member of New Zealand’s Parliament, said in an interview with Radio Australia. “This video evidence though clearly puts it in front of people, both in Fiji and in the wider world, and that sort of behavior, that sort of deliberate torture and brutality simply isn’t acceptable.”