Extract from my memoirs.
It was during the early hours of December 10th 1998; actually while I was overseas in New Zealand participating in mutual aid meetings with the New Zealand Defence Force, when fourteen or so members of the self styled GRA group, led by Harold Keke, mounted a pre dawn commando style raid on the isolated Yandina Police Station, arriving in canoes powered by high powered outboard motors.
They held the lone, unsuspecting, police officer on duty captive pointing a .22 rifle to his head; smashed down the armoury door using a heavy log and stole several rifles and ammunition.
They left; the policeman, badly shaken by the experience but uninjured, managed to relay a radio message to police headquarters in Honiara.
Three weeks later we had an early morning shoot out on Bungana Island which is in the neighboring Ngela group of islands, part of the Solomons chain.
It seemed that five armed men in a stolen power boat from the Tambea Beach Resort had beached it on Bungana Island.
There they had been challenged by a police patrol from the Central Islands Province at Tulagi who were acting on a tip off. I was told that the police patrol had been fired on first, with a constable receiving a superficial wound.
This information was relayed to me by the NRSF commander, Michael Wheatley, while I was in my office at Rove meeting with a Chief from South Malaita discussing community policing.
The NRSF commander was ordered to do everything possible including perhaps surrounding the small island and starving the gang into surrender as preferable to a gun fight and casualties.
Why the concern about police doing their duty and using their weapons to quickly conclude this action?
The answer to that question was that we had at this time an insurrection that was still relatively low scale; so why needlessly incite problems over what was then, a controllable incident.
We were a Police Force not a Military Force.
I was shocked and deeply concerned to find out later the same day that one of the gang had been shot and killed with another slightly wounded; the remainder captured.
This death was indeed very regrettable, but one does not try to second guess the on site commander. However, I was still bending over backwards to minimize the use of force and ordered an immediate inquiry.
The weapons recovered that day were those stolen from the Yandina Police Station.
The four arrested persons were taken to Honiara where they were held in custody. The wounded man, Keke, told the police he was ‘sorry’ and, allegedly, named Alebua, who he claimed had told him to steal the weapons.
Keke was also given medical treatment in hospital, under police guard, before being returned to custody. The injured police constable, also, received medical care, but he was not seriously injured and had suffered just a facial wound after being shot, but he was lucky as he could have been more seriously injured or have been killed.
This incident brought into sharp focus the threat the police faced from militants that were armed and who, clearly, had the intent to use the lethal weapons in their possession.
I could also say the incident came as a real wake up call and reinforced my concerns that I had expressed in the report I had given to the Prime Minister a full month earlier.
I was compelled, thereafter, to protect my officers by issuing them with arms in order to safeguard them when deployed in response to incidents involving militants, but more clarification on this will follow, including a chapter on the specific, written orders I issued.
The initial investigation was carried out by Senior Superintendent Hosking who did a first class job. Due to his findings I requested, through the Prime Minister’s office, the assistance of the New Zealand Police to complete the investigation.
Two senior New Zealand police detectives quickly arrived and began a skilled and detailed investigation, ably aided with forensic work from the Australian Federal Police (AFP).
Their combined investigations led to the early arrest of a Tulagi based police constable.
This man had actually been suspended from duty some weeks earlier by me for misconduct. However, it happened that although interdicted from duty at the time, he had been allowed to join the police patrol: which was led by his Provincial Commander who broke regulations by allowing the constable to go on the patrol to Bungana Island.
After the police investigation was concluded, the constable was charged with the murder of Ishmael Pada, one of the Bungana five and brought before the court. He was convicted, but on a lesser charge of manslaughter and sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
The arrest, conviction and sentencing of this police constable was the first occasion, to my knowledge, that a member of the police service was tried before the courts during the period of the so-called ‘ethnic tension’ and it served to illustrate my determination to ensure justice was swiftly done – and seen to have been done by all.
The constable’s commanding officer was also disciplined for allowing a policeman suspended from duty to have joined the police patrol.
Another one of the captured gang members, apart from Keke, was Joseph Sangu, both well know militants: they and the other GRA militants involved in the Bungana incident were held in custody while the police investigated their cases.
All in all, so far, a successful law and order operation with the exception of the unlawful and regrettable killing of Pada.
Facing the serious charges of attempted murder, armed robbery and theft of arms, they appeared before Honiara's, Sri Lankan, Chief Magistrate in early March 1999.
Now happened, what to my mind was a serious miscarriage of justice.
Unbelievably, at the urging of the Public Defender, Patrick Lavery, who claimed he needed more time to prepare the militants defence, the Chief Magistrate released all of them on bail with sureties lodged by the then Premier of Guadalcanal Province, Ezekiel Alebua, and by a Catholic priest, Norman Arkwright, from the parish of Tanaghai.
This is where one begins to wonder about stories that were later circulating. Andrew Nori, a prominent local lawyer, who later came out as the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF) spokesperson claimed, in an article he published, entitled ‘5th June in Perspective,’ that back in mid March 1998, a meeting had been held at the same Tambea Resort in West Guadalcanal, which included several key Guadalcanal leaders. In attendance also were Alebua, two Guadalcanal police officers, Sethuel Kelly and a number of young men including Harold Keke and Joseph Sangu.
Their plan was said to have then been formulated to forcefully evict Malaitans from Guadalcanal.
Then we had the two inflammatory speeches by Alebua.
The first was at the Ruavatu High School when he claimed that Guadalcanal land had been stolen from its people.
In his second speech on 30 November 1998, he called for S$2.5 million compensation for 25 alleged murders on the island.
By then we had also witnessed the first waves of attacks on plantation workers and their forced removals; to be followed by the GRA raid on the Yandina Police armoury and the Bungana incident, as just described
A pattern of violence could be seen being established.
The Chief Magistrate’s decision to allow bail, in my view, was the most single judicial error I had witnessed in the whole of my police career and proved to be the key to the police losing control of the ensuing violence.
While in custody, Sangu had actually handwritten a note from his prison cell calling on other GRA militants to stop the ‘struggle’ and the message was relayed on the SIBC news.
Had the men not been released and had they been convicted and sentenced, I believe GRA activities could well have ended.
It is ironic to consider that after the re-capture of Keke and Sangu following RAMSI’s intervention in 2003, the pair was held in prison custody for more than 18 months before being brought to trial on the original charges they faced in March 1999.
Once out on bail, Keke and Sangu escaped to the Weathercoast; that favoured location, where they evaded re-capture while initiating a new upsurge in militant activity, including the capture of several policemen that were resident in the area.
Now there was a certain amount of unfair and unfounded criticism because of the Bungana incident directed in my direction by certain people who obviously disliked my method of fair yet firm, lawful proceedings.
Oh… and transparent as well…
The final report of the Bungana investigation, compiled by the New Zealand Police investigation team, and which was submitted to the Solomon Islands Government, vindicated all my actions and orders completely when it quoted:
“All the documents seen in an endeavour to assimilate and understand aspects of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Policy, Practice and Procedures, clearly and succinctly confirms the Commissioner’s determination to ensure the minimum force when dealing with incidents – and the Commissioner has a particular vision and commitment to ensuring accountability in the police service, equally the Commissioner espouses the principles of fairness and equity of a commitment to human rights.”
As a footnote to this chapter, one might compare my handling of the unfortunate death of Ishmael Pada and the aftermath, to the shooting of a former police officer at Titinge in 2010 when two Tongan soldiers serving with RAMSI opened fire on a rock throwing mob, reportedly, using live rounds, contrary to what appears to have been the use of minimum force and contrary to international standard rules of engagement.
The incident was said to have been investigated by the police at the time but to-date there has not been a disclosure that I have seen from the Director of Public Prosecutions on the case, or an inquest into the death held.
At the time of the Titinge incident, I wrote suggesting an independent inquiry into the fatal shooting, as I had initiated after Bungana, but the then Police Commissioner, Mr. Peter Marshall, commented saying any outside inquiry was unnecessary as the RSIPF was capable enough to examine the matter. But we are now 31 months on and still, seemingly, without and answer.
Under the legal framework that provides for RAMSI's intervention in the Solomons, The Facilitation of International Assistance Act 2003 (No,1 of 2003), and the immunity provisions contained in the Act, it is possible than no criminal action can be pursued in respect of the shooting. On face value the immunity provisions appear to be consistent with Solomon Island's Constitution, but doubt remains, however, whether the immunity provisions contravene certain fundamental rights provisions. It is in such circumstances that I consider a statement on the outcome of the police investigation should have been forthcoming before now.
To be continued ……
Policing a Clash of Cultures Part 34 : A Police Officer as a Murderer? The Bungana Incident.
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