Fiji: ex-officers accuse Fiji's prison commissioner of ordering staff to beat inmates

Exclusive: Four former prison officers seeking asylum in Australia claim Francis Kean, brother-in-law of Fiji’s PM, ran a brutal campaign of intimidation

Four former prison officers from Fiji are seeking asylum in Australia claiming the prime minister’s brother-in-law, who is the commissioner of the corrections service, routinely ordered the beating and mistreatment of prisoners and at one point ordered them to assault a fellow staff member.

Detailed accounts given to the Guardian by the four officers claim Francis Kean, a powerful figure inside Fiji, waged a brutal campaign of intimidation, coercion, bullying and violence on both prisoners and staff – which human rights campaigners say may amount to torture – with impunity.

The men allege Kean instructed them to mistreat inmates by keeping them in isolation in cells with no bedding, and only a bucket for a toilet that was emptied once a day, and spraying them with a hose throughout the night to keep them from sleeping.

Two of the officers also allege that Kean ordered prison guards to get a fellow officer drunk and “beat his arse up” as punishment for supposed failure to do his job. A recording alleged to be of Kean giving this order, using homophobic slurs, has been heard by the Guardian.

The four men all left Fiji between 2017 and 2019 and have applied for asylum in Australia. They are: Rokodausiga Josua Talemaisolomoni, 44, who served in the Corrections Service for 21 years and was the officer in charge of Suva prison, the largest prison in Fiji; his second-in-command Hendrik De Wachter, 27; Robert Delana, 43, who served in a variety of roles during his 10 years in the Corrections Service and Isikeli Ravula, 31, who worked on the K9 unit which conducted searches for contraband.

Talemaisolomoni and De Wachter allege they had been politically persecuted by Kean for allowing an opposition MP to visit an inmate. All four claim that due to Kean’s political connections they could face serious penalties, including imprisonment, if they were to return to Fiji.

They also claim that they were themselves subject to harsh punishments from the commissioner, including regularly being forced to jump into a pond of sewage, having their wages docked for weeks at a time and being ordered to walk 20km before and after work each day.

In 2007, Kean pleaded guilty to manslaughter after he beat a man at the wedding of his niece, the daughter of the prime minister Frank Bainimarama, Kean’s brother-in-law. The man died of a brain hemorrhage. Kean was convicted for manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in prison, though he was released after just a few months. He was appointed to the position of commissioner in 2016.

‘I had no other option’

The officers all claimed that corporal punishment was commonplace in the prisons and that Kean would routinely indicate to them that they were to assault inmates.

“He won’t say it directly,” said De Wachter. “He will say this Fijian word: ‘cakava ga na ka e dodonu me caka’ (Just do what is supposed to be done to them). He’ll give this facial expression [mimes punching his cheek].”

De Wachter said that he felt he “had no other option” than to obey commands.

“It’s either you execute the command or face the full brunt of Commander Kean, which is to be booted out of the Fiji Corrections Service, and then put a bad name on you in all the other government organisations … so, it’s just impossible to get another job.”

Delana said that violence had been part of prison culture in Fiji since before Kean became commissioner, but alleged that Kean repeatedly instructed officers to beat particular prisoners, and that not to obey would cause an officer to be regarded with suspicion.

Ravula, who worked on the K9 unit, claimed that Kean would indicate that the men should use violence if any inmates resisted.

“Some of the orders are like: if anyone stands in your way, these are the words that come out from his mouth: ‘Take him down.’

“In the Fijian way, I think it’s meant to go physically,” he said. “I’ve been involved in assaults, a lot of times.”

The officers claimed Kean particularly targeted political prisoners and sexual offenders.

“If an offender comes on national news those are the ones that will be targeted, he’ll call up his senior men and say ‘this one that’s coming in, I want so and so to be done to him’,” De Wachter said.

Despite Fiji’s restrictive media laws, some reports of beatings and deaths in prison since Kean became commissioner have emerged.

Two prison officers were charged with murder in April and another two charged with assault after the death of a man in a prison in Lautoka. In 2019, police launched an investigation into an alleged assault at Suva remand centre on an inmate, and there was public outrage in 2018 when photographs emerged showing an inmate whose face was bloodied and bruised. His family claim he was assaulted by guards.

Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s Pacific researcher said while occasionally officers were held to account for violence “those cases are the exception”.

An Amnesty International report published in 2016, which covers events prior to Kean’s appointment as commissioner, found that Fiji’s police, corrections officers and military personnel consistently used violence against people accused of crimes or in custody, including beatings, sexual assault and torture of prisoners, including by inserting chillies into their anuses.

Kean has previously made comments in support of corporal punishment – though he later walked back those comments after an outcry – and Schuetze said these comments and his criminal conviction led Amnesty to have serious concerns about his leadership.

“If you look at the prison system structure you’ve got Francis Kean … who was convicted of manslaughter, a number of weeks after he was sentenced he was released by government and then he was promoted up the ranks to be head of prisons,” said Schuetze.

“When you have a cultural structure like that that rewards people who commit acts of violence, it becomes the norm and accepted to occasionally beat people up and people know that they can get away with it.”

Bainimarama, speaking to the UN’s regional conference on the convention against torture in October 2016, conceded that: “This culture of what we call the buturaki – the beating – is deeply ingrained in parts of the Fijian psyche. But it is simply not acceptable in the modern age.”

But he said: “We do not have – and never have had – a state-sanctioned policy of torture in Fiji. What we have had are occasional problems with individuals or groups of people taking the law into their own hands and violating the human rights of others.”

Cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment

Rokodausiga Josua Talemaisolomoni claimed that when he was in charge of Suva prison, he was given “verbal instruction by phone” from Kean to “make the prison environment worse” for certain inmates.

“When I was OIC [officer in charge] in Suva when there was a rapist who is being sentenced today … they would have to be put into the cell without any bedding or their bedding be wetted and they be wetted so the whole night they can be shivering.”

De Wachter and Talemaisolomoni claim they were given this same instruction when two opposition politicians were brought in. The men – Jagath Karunaratne, the president of an opposition party, and Mosese Bulitavu, an opposition MP – were sentenced to two years and five months in jail on sedition charges in 2018 for spray-painting anti-government graffiti.

“The command was given verbally by the commissioner, Commander Kean, to make them have a terrible stay,” said de Wachter. “We had to isolate them from other prisoners … they were put in a cell … which had no toilets, so they had to do their business in a bucket, and they had to sleep overnight with the buckets full of whatever they had to do.”

Karunaratne confirmed he was kept in an old cell block by himself for a month, that he had to sleep on the concrete floor with one sheet and was provided with a bucket as a toilet. He was allowed out of the cell for 10 minutes a day in which he could shower and empty his bucket.

De Wachter and Talemaisolomoni allege that Kean also ordered officers to blast Bulitavu and Karunaratne with cold water from a hose every night to prevent them from sleeping.

“We did not execute this command,” said De Wachter. “We just told him verbally through email that, ‘Yeah, your command has been executed’. Because knowing that - you know - with the human rights and ICRC – Red Cross – and all might come into the picture.”

Schuetze said: “These types of punishments individually, but certainly in combination, constitute cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and may amount to torture.”

Karunaratne said he was never hosed at night, but claims he saw it happening to inmates in the cell next to him.

‘A dictatorship’

Talemaisolomoni, the most senior of the four officers who spoke to the Guardian, served in the corrections service for 21 years under roughly half a dozen different commissioners. He described Kean’s leadership style as a “dictatorship” and claimed he created a culture of fear.

“Everybody is working in fear. They tend to hide themselves. It is a really a bad environment.”

The officers all allege they were regularly punished by Kean. De Wachter claimed that on around 10 occasions he and other officers were ordered to jump into a pool of sewage at a piggery attached to the prison.

De Wachter and Talemaisolomoni said they fell out of favour with Kean in 2018 for allowing the general secretary of the opposition party to visit Karunaratne.

In his application for asylum, which has been seen by the Guardian, Talemaisolomoni wrote that he did not know the visitor was a politician and that he was “blamed for having a political intention in allowing the visitation”.

Talemaisolomoni and De Wachter claimed that after the incident Kean ordered them to walk 20km every morning and 20km every evening between Naboro prison and Suva, while being watched by a patrol car. The Guardian has seen an email purportedly from Kean that supports this claim.

Prison officers claimed they also routinely had their pay docked. In an email seen by the Guardian, purportedly sent from Kean to De Wachter, Kean wrote: “You still have a lot to learn. Too weak … discipline that’s the answer to their financial woes.”

De Wachter and Talemaisolomoni said they fear political persecution if they return to Fiji. The men expressed concern that Kean’s relationship with the prime minister and connections with the military could prevent them from living and working safely in Fiji.

Two of the men – Talemaisolomoni and Delana – have had their asylum claims refused by the Australian government.

In Talemaisolomoni’s refusal letter, which has been seen by the Guardian, the Department of Home Affairs accepted that he “received physical, verbal, financial and psychological challenges from Mr Kean in the course of his job” and that Kean “threatened the applicant once on 4 June 2018 with an imprisonment sentence if he was found guilty of associating with the opposition”.

However, the department did not accept that there were direct threats of harm to the applicant from the prime minister, the police, or the military.

Talemaisolomoni and Delana are awaiting a tribunal hearing to appeal the decision. The other men are still waiting to be interviewed regarding their claims.

‘A byword for intimidation, vindictiveness, corruption and self-dealing’

The allegations from the officers come after Kean was removed from the World Rugby Council following allegations of homophobia in April.

The council launched an inquiry into Kean after reports in the Sunday Times alleged that he had ordered his officers to physically assault a fellow officer.

The Guardian has heard an audio recording, purporting to be of the encounter, which De Wacther claims he made.

In it, a voice, purportedly Kean’s, can be heard saying: “We are not breeding poofters and weaklings here” and then encourages the men to assault one officer: “Invite him for beer, while drinking throw a few punches, punch him up. This is how you treat motherfuckers like him.”

The Guardian has not been able to independently verify the recording, but it has been widely reported.

The Pacific Rugby Players Welfare wrote a scathing letter to the World Rugby Council urging them not to elect Kean its executive committee.

“It is extraordinary to anyone involved in the game in the Pacific that Kean is even on the ballot,” wrote Dan Leo, the director of PRPW, which support players of Pacific Island heritage. “His time in office has become a byword for intimidation, vindictiveness, corruption and self-dealing, nepotism, and the threat and realisation of violence.”

Francis Kean and the Fiji Corrections Service were contacted by the Guardian for comment, but had not responded by the time of publication.