WELLINGTON - Amnesty International accused Fiji coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama on Thursday of maintaining a "climate of fear" in the Pacific nation ahead of elections that are supposed to herald a return to democracy.
Bainimarama has led Fiji since seizing power in a 2006 military coup, and is favourite to win when the country goes to the polls for the first time in eight years on September 17.
But Amnesty said rights workers, journalists and unionists continued to battle official intimidation as they carried out legitimate activities.
"A combination of draconian laws, a pattern of intimidation and harassment of those who criticise the government, as well as reports of torture by the security forces, have created a climate of fear in Fiji," Amnesty's New Zealand executive director Grant Bayldon said.
The rights group released a 36-page report detailing examples of alleged bullying, harassment and physical abuse by officials.
While the report conceded some improvements had been made, including removing military censors from newsrooms and repealing laws banning public gatherings, it said the reforms did not go far enough.
Amnesty said the press remained cowed, citing "a culture of self-censorship" caused by an official decree that means anyone in the media who disagrees with the government line could face criminal charges attracting potential jail terms and hefty fines.
It said authorities continued to break up protests and private meetings involving opposition politicians in "a disturbing pattern of interference with the right to peaceful assembly and association".
The report said serious allegations of torture were not properly investigated and went unpunished, including the abuse of two escaped prisoners after they were recaptured in 2012.
Graphic footage of that incident was leaked on YouTube, showing one prisoner being beaten with a metal rod as he curled in a foetal position and another being dragged around a field by a dog latched onto his bloodied shirt as his attackers laugh.
No one has been charged over the incident, which is one of numerous allegations of torture and physical assault levelled against the regime.
Bayldon said Bainimarama could not pay lip service to holding free and fair elections when such abuses were occurring.
"It is not enough to say the right things when abroad while allowing the repression to continue at home," he said. "Prime Minister Bainimarama and his government should act now to end the climate of fear." The report comes ahead of a visit by Bainimarama to New Zealand and Australia to drum up support for his Fiji First Party among expatriate voters.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key confirmed the visit this week but said he would not be meeting Bainimarama, whose trip was made possible after Australia and New Zealand lifted travel sanctions blocking members of the regime from visiting.