A report released by Human Rights Watch says police in Papua New Guinea routinely beat, rape, and torture detainees, many of whom are children.

The 124-page report documents boys and girls in police custody being shot, knifed and beaten. It quotes eyewitness reports of gang rapes in police stations, police vehicles, and other locations.

Children make up nearly half of Papua New Guinea's 5.6 million people, with fewer than half of them enrolled in school.

The report says that those children the police perceive as gang members, along with child sex workers, street vendors, and those who engage in homosexual acts, are particularly targeted by the police.

One of the report's authors, Zama Coursen-Neff, says from the PNG capital of Port Moresby that the police need to be held accountable.

"For the most part police are not being held accountable for the crimes they commit against children, which leads to rampant police violence," said Zama Coursen-Neff. "Police are able to rape young girls, to burn boys to extract confessions, to slash them with knives, to shoot them in the legs, and to continue serving as if nothing has happened."

She says there is some acknowledgment at the highest levels of the government that police brutality is a significant problem, but she says nothing has been done about the practices at the local level.

The report says police abuse may also be fueling the country's HIV/AIDS epidemic, not only through the alleged rapes, but also because, the report says, the police harass and beat health workers and others who distribute or even carry condoms for their own use.

Experts believe 80,000 people in Papua New Guinea are living with HIV, including between three and four percent of the adult population in the capital of Port Moresby, giving the country the highest rate in the South Pacific region.

Ms. Coursen-Neff says police abuse is discouraging people from reporting crime.

"But when they go into communities and pull down houses and rape children, that alienates the communities from them," she said. "Communities are not cooperating with them, people are afraid to approach the police for help. Women have told me there that when they have gone to the police for help, police have asked them for sex?"

Human Rights Watch called on the Papua New Guinea government to condemn police abuse, prosecute those responsible, and create an independent body to monitor police violence against children.

The report also called for Australia, Papua New Guinea's largest donor, and other international donors to take an active role in condemning the police abuse.