SYDNEY -- Police in Papua New Guinea collared a teen suspected of picking the pocket of a soldier and dispensed their own justice: The officers beat him, slammed his head into a truck, and burned him, the youth told human rights researchers.
The case of Steven E., 16, was documented in a new report from Human Rights Watch that found that police in Papua New Guinea routinely beat, rape, and torture children. The Pacific nation's internal security minister admits the country has ''lost its way."
''When they were burning me, they were saying things like, 'Rotten kids running around spoiling the place, just another stupid kid in town,' " Steven E. told the New York-based group. ''Two of them were burning me at the same time."
Bire Kimisopa, the security minister for the troubled Pacific nation that sprawls across mountainous jungle-clad islands just north of Australia, said police brutality is ''something we cannot hide from."
''It is simply because we have lost our way in the last 10, 20 years," he said.
Papua New Guinea is an impoverished, corruption-riven country of 5.6 million struggling with an underfunded, undertrained police force trying to keep a lid on violence. The capital, Port Moresby, is considered one of the world's most dangerous cities outside a war zone.
The report released Wednesday suggests that getting picked up by the police can be as dangerous as being accosted by criminal gangs that roam the country's cities.
''Brutal beatings, rape, and torture of children, as well as confinement in sordid police lockups, are widespread police practices," the 124-page report says. ''Although even high-level government officials acknowledge this, almost nothing has been done to stop it."
But Kimisopa insisted that the government is working with police and international donors, particularly the country's former colonial master Australia, to create a force ''that is reasonable, that is ethical, that is more aware of the human rights."
A New York pediatrician shown photos of Steven E.'s scars in January 2005 said they were consistent with his having been burned in the way he described.
Zama Coursen-Neff, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, interviewed victims of violence along with health workers and some police last year in towns around Papua New Guinea to prepare the report.
''Instead of protecting the public and children from violence, it is the police who are committing some of the most heinous acts of violence imaginable," she said in a statement.
Coursen-Neff said much of the violence and sexual humiliation was so severe, it would be considered torture.
Police also have targeted sex workers and people carrying condoms for brutal attacks, an alarming development in a country with the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the South Pacific. UNICEF estimates that at least 80,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in the country.
During a raid of a venue called the Three-Mile Guesthouse in the capital, Port Moresby, in March 2004, police beat, sexually assaulted and humiliated women and girls, some of whom were prostitutes, forcing many of them to eat condoms, the report said.
Several women were arrested and taken to a police station where at least four were gang raped by police, one victim told Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch called on the international community and Australia, Papua New Guinea's former colonial master and the country's biggest aid donor, to do more to stem the violence as part of its aid program.
Matt Anderson, a spokesman for Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said Canberra, which is working out details of a plan to better fund and better train Papua New Guinea police, was concerned about the report.
He said a Papua New Guinea report last year identified ''serious failure of discipline and systems" in the country's police.