Vanuatu: opposition leader and lawyers beat and teargassed

The detention and questioning of lawyers working for the Vanuatu government in Port Vila continued on Tuesday despite the government calling a state of emergency after security forces violently dispersed anti-government demonstrations.

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Members of Vanuatu’s bar association, calling for the deportation of the minister of communications and information, were beaten and teargassed on Sunday, according to local lawyers and police reports.

Last week, the government ordered the detention of six lawyers protesting against detention without charge. None have been taken into custody. One lawyer and two others were fired by the government.

Earlier on Tuesday, the government ordered the police to stop officers from prosecuting activists, journalists and pro-democracy protesters. In a statement Vanuatu said it was “unfair and unacceptable” that people were being accused of rioting and arson while officials responsible for events were not being held accountable.

Vanuatu announced last week that the state of emergency, which gives authorities sweeping powers, was being applied to some areas of Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila. A memo issued to armed forces members said activists and journalists could be prevented from entering specific areas within the capital.

Protesters block the main road during a demonstration against the government. Photograph: Georgios Kefalas/AP

The state of emergency declaration was among a series of measures introduced by the Vanuatu prime minister, Charlot Salwai, including a nightly curfew and a ban on public meetings.

The measures come after the government announced it was considering cancelling the contract with the Australian company AusNet Services. The firm has been heavily criticised for its alleged role in overseeing maintenance, repair and replacement of electricity services in the country.

Lawyers were told to vacate premises including the Supreme Court, the Vila Law Institute and the Vanuatu Bar Association, and remain in their offices overnight.

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Authorities ordered that property linked to the police should be secured.

Police, under orders from the prime minister, deployed troops from a newly established “water reserve group” to the streets and some areas were patrolled by 100 mounted police and 75 auxiliaries.

On Monday the attorney general, Hartley Aeschliman, ordered the arrest of the leader of the opposition, Baldwin Lonsdale, citing a breach of the government’s proclamation of state of emergency. Lonsdale is the nephew of former prime minister and human rights activist, Serge Vohor.

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