New York's finest accused of brutality

"NYPD same as Tontons Macoutes" read a banner at an angry demonstration outside a Brooklyn police station on Saturday by thousands of Haitian immigrants waving sink plungers and Haitian flags.

It was, perhaps, a trifle harsh to associate New York's finest with the notoriously savage Haitian paramilitaries immortalised in Graham Greene's The Comedians. And Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York City, who has overseen a spectacular decrease in the city's crime rate during the last four years, is no Papa Doc.

But the incident which sparked the weekend protest outside the 70th Precinct in Brooklyn appears to have been gratuitously brutal by any standards. The sink plungers the crowd waved were a reminder of the instrument two police officers allegedly used to sodomise Abner Louima after arresting him following a brawl outside a club last weekend.

Mr Louima, 30, a private security guard born in Haiti, says police officers shoved the handle of a sink plunger up his rectum and then forced it into his mouth, breaking some teeth. He also claims that one of the officers called him a "stupid nigger" and said, "This is Giuliani time, not Dinkins time" - a reference to Mayor Giuliani's predecessor, who was black and reputedly less intolerant of criminals.

Mr Louima, who is reported still to be in critical condition in a Brooklyn hospital, suffered serious injuries in the rectum and the bladder. The New York police authorities have responded swiftly. Two officers have been charged with assault; the commander of the 70th Precinct and his deputy have been transferred; and a desk sergeant on duty on the night of the incident has been suspended.

Mayor Giuliani, who is up for re-election this year, has been at pains to express his dismay over the incident and his sympathy for the victim. Twice he has visited Mr Louima in hospital and on Saturday night he appeared on television to try to soothe tempers following what turned out to be an angry but peaceful demonstration by the Haitian immigrant community. As the mayor pointed out, the case against the two accused officers rests primarily on the evidence of a fellow-officer who has furnished ample eyewitness evidence against them.

That was not the kind of official response the Haitian population became accustomed to during the days of Papa Doc, or of his son Baby Doc, but that did not stop the crowd outside the 70th Precinct pelting the police with insults. "Sodomites! Sodomites!" they cried. One banner depicting a policeman with horns read "Devil in a blue suit"; another urged the population to "Resist Police Terror".

If the newly installed commander at the 70th Precinct, Raymond Diaz, felt the Haitian community's response had been a touch extreme, he was not showing it during Saturday's demonstration, when he made a public appearance to try to talk to the protesters. "It's understandable that they're outraged," he told the New York Times. "I hope we can overcome this and get stronger."