Fiji death in custody reignites debate over police brutality

By Kelvin Anthony

Witnesses have rejected police claims a Fijian man who died in police custody jumped from a two-storey building to his death, instead alleging he was beaten by officers, reigniting debate across Fiji over the use of force by police officers and allegations of systematic brutality.

The death in violent circumstances of Mesake Sinu, a 46-year-old indigenous Fijian man from Nadi, prompted Rusiate Tudravu, the acting commissioner of Fiji’s police force, to condemn indiscipline among his own officers and order an investigation into Sinu’s death.

Tudravu told local media “a thorough investigation will … ascertain the circumstances surrounding the victim’s death and those found responsible will be charged and produced before a court of law”.

But the commissioner did not respond to multiple phone calls and detailed emails from the Guardian regarding the police’s internal investigation into Sinu’s death and wider allegations of police brutality.

Figures from Fiji’s director of public prosecution obtained exclusively by the Guardian show that 400 charges of serious violence were laid against police officers between May 2015 and April 2020.

Sixteen charges of rape were laid against police in that five-year period, two charges of murder, and nine of manslaughter.

More than 110 charges of assault were brought against officers. Other charges include perjury, abduction, conspiracy, and aiding prisoners to escape.

Fiji police did not respond to the Guardian’s requests for statistics on convictions.

Police at a roadblock in the Fijian capital Suva. Recent allegations of police violence have sparked a nationwide debate over police use of force.
Police at a roadblock in the Fijian capital Suva. Recent allegations of police violence have sparked a nationwide debate over police use of force. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

A spokesman for the Fiji police force earlier alleged Sinu, a suspect in a 2015 bank robbery, died from injuries sustained after he jumped from a double-storey building following a robbery. However, a post-mortem ruled out the fall as a possible cause of death, police later admitted. Sinu died from a “traumatic head injury” caused by “blunt force trauma”.

And witness accounts flatly oppose claims made by the police.

In a video posted to facebook, Lewa Kuriako, who said she was present with Sinu on the morning of the incident, claimed there was “no truth to the allegation of robbery” and alleged that the version of events provided publicly by Fiji police was false.

“If you want to know the truth, we are many witnesses who are all available and ready to answer questions and give evidence as witnesses to the killing of Mesake Sinu.

“We saw with our very own eyes and we actually witnessed what happened.”

Kuriako alleged that at about 3.30am on the morning of 12 October at least nine police officers in civilian clothes forced their way into a house in Nasau, Nadi, where Sinu was staying.

“When the police got here the first thing they did to us was break down our door … and punched up all the males in the house, including Mesake Sinu,” she alleged.

“The officers chased Mr Sinu and he tried to escape and jumped out of the house. The fall was about two metres and not a double-storey building as police said.”

Kuriako alleged police officers then “rounded him up and assaulted him”.

“They also smashed a glass bottle on him and dragged him inside the twin cab [police vehicle].

“There was a deep cut on his forehead and blood kept oozing out.”

Kuriako’s online testimony has been viewed more than 120,000 times and widely shared across Fiji.

Allegations of human rights abuses have been previously made against Fiji’s military and police forces.

In June five police officers allegedly threw a man off a bridge and are currently on bail facing charges for causing grievous bodily harm, common assault, and interfering with a witness. They have each entered not guilty pleas.

In the same month another officer allegedly assaulted a man at his home on the outskirts of the capital. And in August police officers allegedly assaulted a man at Nausori police station.

Two days before Sinu’s death, on 10 October, a 21-year-old man was severely beaten at his home, allegedly by four non-uniformed police officers in Suva. He was arrested for breaking curfew and drinking in public.

Police have defended their actions, saying the man obstructed police and resisted arrest.

The string of recent cases has prompted the country’s human rights watchdog to launch its own investigation.

“Fiji has an effective and transparent criminal justice system,” said Ashwin Raj, director of Fiji’s human rights and anti-discrimination commission.

Raj said the commission had seen a copy of Sinu’s death certificate which stated the cause of death was “extensive intracranial haemorrhage due to severe traumatic head injury”. The external cause of injury was “blunt force trauma”.

“I have every confidence in the criminal justice system that it will operate transparently and hold those responsible for this heinous act of violence to account,” Raj said. “We have nearly concluded our investigations … and we will be giving our report to the Fiji police force.”