12 Nov 2016

Fiji court finds police and military guilty of raping Soko

4:37 pm on 12 November 2016
Fiji police

Fiji police Photo: Supplied

Eight suspended police officers and a soldier in Fiji have been found guilty of the rape and sexual assault of Vilikesa Soko two years ago.

30-year-old Mr Soko was arrested in connection to a robbery in Nadi in August 2014, and later died in Lautoka Hospital as a result of the injuries he sustained.

Another man, Senijeli Boila, was also assaulted.

Fiji police office in Nadi.

Nadi police station. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

At the High Court at Lautoka on Friday afternoon, Manasa Talala, Seruvi Caqusau, Kelevi Sewatu, Penaia Drauna, Filise Vere, Viliame Vereivalu, Jona Davonu and Senitiki Natakasavu were each found guilty of the rape and sexual assault of Mr Soko and Mr Boila.

Military officer Pita Matairavula, a former bodyguard for Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, was found guilty of the same charges.

Talala and Verivalu were also found guilty of defeating the course of justice by instructing other police officers to make false statements.

They had initially been charged with manslaughter as well, but those charges were dropped in 2015.

Earlier this week, court assessors found all of the accused not guilty of the rape and sexual assault of Mr Boila; three of the accused not guilty of the rape and sexual assault of Mr Soko; and Talala and Verivalu not guilty of defeating the course of justice.

But on Friday, High Court Justice Aruna Aluthge disagreed with the assessors' opinions, and found them guilty of all charges. They were all granted bail ahead of sentencing next Friday.

The case of Mr Soko sparked international outrage over an entrenched culture of brutality involving Fiji's security forces, and there were concerns expressed at the time that those responsible would never face trial.

But in February 2015, the director of public prosecutions, Christopher Pryde, jointly charged nine people with the assault and death of Mr Soko, an announcement that was followed by a flurry of controversial turns.

The then-police commissioner, Ben Groenewald, suspended the officers and welcomed the announcement as a clear message that nobody was above the law. But only a few months later, Mr Groeneweld suddenly resigned and left the country, in part due to frustrations with the military - in particular, the then-land force commander Brigadier General Sitiveni Qiliho - in relation to another brutality case involving Matairavula.

Fiji Police Commissioner Ben Groenewald appointed in May 2014

Fiji's former police commissioner, Ben Groenewald Photo: RNZI/ Sally Round

After the initial arrests were made, police announced that they were still looking for Matairavula, who had failed to appear for two court summons in Suva. Mr Groenewald accused the military of trying to harbour Matairavula, after an unsuccessful attempt to arrest him at the military barracks in Suva.

"When we were looking for Pita [Matairavula] we could not find him and later on we found out that he was harboured at the military camp," said Mr Groenewald in a November 2015 interview, shortly after his resignation. He said he was not happy with the way the Fiji military was interfering with policing in the country, and that his departure was partly due to the stand-off.

Mr Groenewald said he tried to get in contact with Mr Qiliho, but his calls were never returned. After Mr Groenewald resigned, Brigadier General Qiliho was appointed as the acting police commissioner.

In March he was appointed permanently, but last week he said he would take one year off to go to a war college in Malaysia.

One of Brigadier General Qiliho's first acts in his police career was to reinstate the suspended officers, but he rescinded the move in February after Mr Pryde said he was extremely concerned about the decision, which he said was unacceptable and represented a real risk of interference with investigations.

Fiji's Police Commissioner, Sitiveni Qiliho. April 2016.

Fiji's Police Commissioner, Sitiveni Qiliho. Photo: Fiji PM's YouTube channel.

The case eventually made it to court for a three-week trial in late October. But in the public gallery, in full uniform, was Brigadier General Qiliho, who said he attended the trial as a 'learning platform' to deal with police brutality cases.

Two years on from the death of Vilikesa Soko, the Fiji police force remains plagued by a raft of allegations of abuse and misconduct.

Just two weeks ago, a man alleged that he was punched and kicked while in custody in late October, and was later hospitalised for his injuries.

Last week, a human rights lawyer said a year after the Lautoka businessman Rajneel Singh was attacked, allegedly by police, no progress has been made in getting him justice.

The 2012 video-taped beating of prison escapees is yet to go trial, with Matairavula being one of the accused.

The incident was condemned by the New Zealand Parliament, but Fiji rejected the stance as absurd.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama admitted torture is an issue in his country but said Fiji's constitution prohibits torture and the country had never had a state-sanctioned policy of torture, or one of inflicting cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.

While many other cases of brutality remain unresolved, today's verdict brings one of the country's most prominent cases of abuse to a close. The nine convicted officers will appear in court for sentencing next Friday.