Five Tongan legislators will stand trial on sedition charges for their alleged role in a riot last year that left eight dead and destroyed much of the centre of the capital, a magistrate says. Following a preliminary hearing, Police Magistrate Peau Pifeleti ruled the five should be tried in the Nuku'alofa Supreme Court. The five, including veteran political activist Akilisi Pohiva and former police minister Clive Edwards, have been campaigning for the Government to speed up political reforms in the semi-feudal South Pacific monarchy of 115,000 people. Prosecutors alleged the five were guilty of sedition, or encouraging rebellion against the government, when a political rally turned to rioting on November 16 last year. "This is a very serious case for the people of Tonga and the government," the magistrate said. "And in Tonga sedition is a very serious crime next to treason and apart from murder, which is the taking of a life."
The five - who also included legislators Isileli Pulu, Lepolo Taunisila and Uliti Uata - elected to be tried by only a judge, without a jury. The preliminary hearing was told the five had appeared before a cabinet meeting on November 16 and demanded reforms to the make-up of the parliament. They allegedly said Prime Minister Feleti Sevele must agree to the reforms in order to stop the riot which had started in the centre of Nuku'alofa. However, the riot got out of control and dozens of buildings were destroyed. Eight people, presumed to be looters, died after being trapped inside one of the burning buildings. The five are among nine legislators elected by popular vote in a parliament dominated by nobles' representatives and appointees of King Siaosi Tupou V.
A large number of Tongans arrested after last year's riots in the capital Nuku'alofa were beaten up by security forces, according to a report.
A community taskforce on human rights in Tonga has compiled what it called a comprehensive 77-page report which documented the treatment of people arrested and detained since the riots on November 16.
Eighty-four detainees and inmates were interviewed, with 41 per cent saying they had suffered violence during their arrest.
"All of these persons suffered head and facial injuries ranging from bruising and swelling to broken teeth, bones and eye damage. The predominant perpetrators of violence during arrest were members of the Tonga defence service," the report said.
Almost a third claimed they were interviewed by security forces with violence or threats of violence and intimidation intended to elicit information or confessions before reaching the central police station. Half said the same happened at the station. All detainees and prisoners reported sordid conditions in the cells, which were overcrowded to more than six times their capacity.
The conditions were hot and humid during the day and cold at night, and because there was no bedding some detainees contracted pneumonia.
Close to 20 per cent of the detainees and prisoners claimed that they were handcuffed while inside a prison cell for varying periods of time, ranging from two hours to 10 days, often resulting in agonising wrist and arm injuries.
All those held reported problems with denial of access to families, lawyers and in many cases medical attention.The report said 21 per cent of the detainees held at the central police station and interviewed for the report were children.