Extrajudicial killings & human rights abuses in the Philippines

Hong Kong Mission for Human Rights & Peace in the Philippines

Following reports of widespread and continuing killings of persons in the Philippines, concerns have been growing around the world, including in Hong Kong. The information reaching the international community concerning these events alleges that the killings, which appear to specifically target left-leaning political activists, human rights defenders, members of the clergy, students, lawyers and journalists, have caused hundreds of casualties in recent years, with the problem continuing unabated at present. These reports have given rise to increasing concern on the part of individuals and organizations in Hong Kong, leading to a desire to better understand the problem and to inform Hong Kong society about these events, in order to lend a hand in doing whatever is possible to bring about an end to these killings.

To gain an improved understanding of the problems, the underlying causes and ongoing realities in this human rights crisis, it was decided that a fact finding mission should be conducted by members of Hong Kong’s civil society. The fact-finding mission, which was held on 23 to 28 July 2006, and was entitled the Hong Kong Mission for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, was designed to be multi-sectoral–comprising of representatives from the various sectors that are being targeted by the killings, as listed above. The mission was organized in order to add to efforts already being made by the growing global campaign to stop the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

The purpose of the Hong Kong Mission was to gather information on the extrajudicial killings and abductions in the Philippines. The Hong Kong Mission spent the week travelling in Central Luzon to conduct interviews with various government departments and officials, different non-governmental organizations, and victims or the families of the victims who have been abducted, killed or subjected to controversial prosecution by the State.

Patterns of killings as described by interviewees
The Hong Kong Mission met a number of representatives from various human rights non-governmental organizations. There was consensus among the NGOs that the killings were part of the government£r plan to rid itself of the opposition parties or those considered to be in opposition to the Arroyo administration. NGOs report that there is a pattern of a sharp increase in the number of killings where there are military detachments.

The civilian interviewees consistently described the perpetrators as having worn ski masks, and camouflage or green garments. The killings described by the family members of victims or witnesses were committed by using guns. Some interviewees were able to confidently state that military men were responsible for the killings. All interviewees stated that those killed or abducted had affiliations with parties or organizations that were labelled by the government as ¤ ommunists?or thought by the perpetrators to be associated with the New People£r Army (NPA).

The killings appear to be targeting anyone suspected of being a member of the NPA illegal armed group. These suspicions, however, in many cases seem to be arbitrarily levelled against persons from the legal ‘leftist’ political spectrum, without credible substantiating evidence being available to confirm their involvement in any illegal and/or armed insurgent activities. It has been suggested that these killings are being perpetrated in an effort to eradicate both the armed resistance to the government as well as its legitimate political opposition. The implementation of this alleged policy, which amounts to a grave violation of democratic principles as well as human rights, is, according to many sources, attributable to Armed Forces General Palparan, who is also known as ‘the Butcher’ in certain circles.

While it was not possible for the fact-finding mission to ascertain beyond all possible doubt that the state is responsible for many or all of the killings in the Philippines, as it cannot replace the state institutions that are meant to conduct investigations and deliver justice, it must be said that the problem of extrajudicial killings is continuing unabated and that the perpetrators are not being brought to justice. The state is therefore, at the very least, failing to protect its citizens.

The Hacienda Luisita killings

The fact-finding mission travelled to Hacienda Luisita on July 26th, 2006 and met with victims’ relatives and local officials. The situation in Hacienda Luisita continues to be problematic to date, but was, in 2004, the scene of one of the most infamous cases of killings in the Philippines.

On 6 November 2004, at around 12pm, some 5000 mill and farm workers from the Cantral Azucarera de Tarlac Labor Union (CATLU) and United Luisita Worker’s Union (ULWU) held a protest in front of the gate of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac sugarcane plantation.

The workers are ‘co-owners’ of the 4915.75 hectares of land inside the Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI) that are classified as agricultural land. As farm-worker-beneficiaries and part of the Stock Distribution Option (SDO) scheme, they are entitled to 33.296 per cent of the SDO’s outstanding capital stock, under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.

The workers protested against the measures imposed on them, which hampered their livelihood. They protested about the massive land-use conversion in the hacienda, the implementation of the ‘voluntary early retirement program’ in 2000 by HLI and the continued reductions of working days. These measures had resulted in the laying-off of more than 1000 farm workers since 1989.

On October 1, 2004, 327 farm-workers, including nine officers of ULWU, were sacked by the HLI management. The efforts by the CATLU to collectively bargain with the management regarding their demands for wage increases and benefits drew to a stand still.

These issues prompted the protesters to stage a picket in front of the gate of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac, which started on 6 November 2005. As the tension grew, several attempts were made by the police and the military to disperse the protesters, but these failed. The protesters stood their ground until a violent confrontation between protesters and the military and police forces broke out on 16 November 2004. Seven people were killed and ten people were severely injured, while some 200 other protesters required hospitalisation.

To date, the investigations into these killings have not led to any conclusive results or any perpetrators being identified or prosecuted, despite there being a large number of persons who witnessed the attacks.

Killing of judges and lawyers
Human rights organization Karapatan recorded the total number of extrajudicial killings under the Arroyo administration as being 704 from 20 January 2001 to 8 July 2006. Of the 704, approximately 290 were members and leaders of progressive party organizations.

According to Codal [Counsels for the Defence of Liberties], 10 judges and 15 lawyers have been killed since the Arroyo administration took office.

Representatives of Codal indicated that the number of killings had recently increased dramatically and that many lawyers have received death threats. Lawyers targeted by the killings and threats are generally human rights lawyers, including some who were or are involved in high profile cases against the government. A personal interview was conducted with a lawyer involved in helping the farmers of Hacienda Luisita. This particular attorney expressed that he was being subjected to harassment and felt that his life is in danger.

At the meeting with Codal, two well-known examples were given to show the blatant attacks on lawyers and judges. Attorney Feldido Dacut was a prominent human rights lawyer and was killed on 15 March 2005. Representatives of Codal expressed their shock at having learnt that the attorney had been killed in a busy place in the middle of the day. The other example given was the assassination of Judge Gingoyon, who ruled on a case involving allegations of corruption against the government in the construction of the airport. Judge Gingoyon ruled against the government and ordered it to pay 14 billion pesos. In addition to these two examples, other members of Codal present at the interview indicated that they have received death threats and are subjected to surveillance by unknown men suspected to be either from the military or the police.

Contrary to the figures given by Codal, the Philippines National Police (PNP) Task Force Usig indicated that there were only a total of 16 judges and lawyers killed during 1999-2006. Of these 16, 11 were judges and four were state prosecutors. General Avelino I Razon Jr, the head of the Task Force Usig, expressed that there were ‘no significant killings of lawyers’ and that every country would have a number of judges or lawyers killed for a variety of reasons. He further indicated that the PNP had no figures concerning the number of suspects found for these cases. When questioned on whether there was an independent task force set up to investigate the killing of lawyers and judges, General Razon indicated that there was none. Upon further questioning, General Razon reiterated that there was no special task force set up to investigate the killing of lawyers and judges, and he expressed that he would have knowledge of such a task force had such a task force been established.

This information is contrary to what was told to the International Fact Finding Mission (IFFM). In its report published on 24 July 2006 entitled ¤ƒrom Facts to Action: Report on the Attacks against Filipino Lawyers and Judges? the IFFM was told that a new task force called ¤‘ask Force Judges, Prosecutors and IBP Lawyers?(Lawyer£r Task Force) was formed on January 17, 2006.

Killing of church workers
Of the more than 700 persons reported as having been killed for political reasons since 2001, 21 have been church workers, including nine pastors and a priest. Furthermore, a priest of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI; Philippine Independent Church) and his wife survived an assassination attempt. A number of other church workers have also received death threats and faced harassment from persons believed to be connected with the military or the police.

All of the victims share much in common. They were human rights advocates, members of progressive organizations, and vocal critics against militarization, logging, mining and other projects deemed by the locals as being destructive to the environment or as threats to their livelihoods. The church workers in question were also contributing to the betterment of society, but in carrying out such work, have been associated with leftist movements and targeted as such. These people have been killed or threatened even though they were engaged in transforming their faith into concerns for the society and assisting those in need. The killings of persons engaged in assisting those most vulnerable sectors of society can only have a negative impact on society as a whole. Two examples of individual cases documented by the fact-finding mission follow.

Fr William Tedena of the IFI was killed near his church by two masked men on motorcycles in March 2005. He had been supporting the peasant beneficiaries of the Hacienda Luisita to claim their land, which had promised to them under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. He supported the peasants by supplying rice to them. In his sermons, he strongly condemned the abuse of power by the military in region.

Rev. Fr Eleuterio “Terry” J. Revollido is a priest from the IFI who is also the Chairperson of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan; New Patriotic Alliance) in Pangasinan province. The organisation£r vice chairman, Mr. Mariano Sepnio and its general secretary, Mr. Jose Doton, were killed in March and May 2006 respectively. Recently, Fr Terry was informed by his neighbours that there were suspicious looking men on motorcycles that appeared to be engaged in surveillance of the seminary where he works. There were also unusual movements of men for successive nights, who reportedly spent several hours in the vicinity of the seminary. Although his personal security is under threat, he has refused to leave the country, as he feels he cannot give up his work for the church or for Bayan.

The killing of Father Isaias Sta. Rosa

At around 7:30pm on 3 August 2006, armed men entered the house of Pastor Isaias’s brothers, Rey and Jonathan. The perpetrators later went to Pastor Isaias’ house taking his brothers with them. When his wife Sonia opened the door, three armed, hooded men forcibly entered the home and ordered all those inside to drop to the floor. They then grabbed Pastor Isaias, and beat him while trying to force him to admit that he was in fact a person named “Elmer” who they were searching for. Pastor Isaias denied being that person and told them to check his identification card.

Pastor Isaias was then taken outside, while his family remained indoors. When his family were certain that the armed men had left, his wife Sonia rushed outside. They found the dead body of Pastor Isaias lying in a nearby creek, some 40-50 meters away from their residence in Barangay (village) Malobago, Daraga, Albay. He had suffered six gunshot wounds, three of which hit his chest, two hit his thigh and another hit his foot.

Evidence collected points to the Army’s 9th Infantry Division being responsible for having shot and killed the 47-year old pastor outside his house. The evidence linking the military to the killing is very strong, as the body of one of the members of the group of ten masked perpetrators was found dead next to the pastor’s. The local police have identified the body as being that of Corporal Lordger Pastrana. On his body were found: an identification card showing that he was a member of the 9th ID, based in Pili, Camarines Sur; a 45-caliber pistol; a cellular phone allegedly taken from Sta. Rosa’s house; and a mission order dated July 22, 2006 that was signed by Major Earnest Mark Rosal of Camp Matillana, Pili, Camarines Sur.

Pastrana is believed to have been one of the gunmen, but it is thought that he was accidentally shot by his own men while they were trying to subdue a fleeing Sta. Rosa. The corporal reportedly received a bullet in the right side of his body, while the pastor died of six gunshot wounds.

The killing of Bishop Alberto Ramento

Prominent human rights defender Bishop Alberto Ramento was killed by unidentified men at his convent in Tarlac City. Prior to his death Bishop Ramento reportedly complained that he had been receiving death threats because of his advocacy activities in favour of human rights.

Sixty-nine-year old Bishop Ramento was found dead in his room on the 2nd floor of the parish of San Sebastian, Espinoza Street, Tarlac City at around 4am on 3 October 2006. He had been fatally stabbed seven times. Initial police investigation reports point to the incident as being a mere case of robbery with homicide. However, the bishop’s family and his fellow clergy-members believe that his murder was premeditated and politically motivated. Bishop Ramento had reportedly received several death threats before his killing and told his family, “I know they are going to kill me next. But never will I abandon my duty to God and my ministry to the people.”

Bishop Ramento was a champion of the poor and publicly criticised the Arroyo administration for its failure to stop the killings in the country and to launch a genuinely independent investigation into them. In an open letter to President Arroyo on 7 September 2006, the IFI Executive Commission, in which Bishop Ramento was a member, called on the president to voluntarily step down because of the failure of her government to stop the increasing number of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. Bishop Ramento also openly opposed the attempts by President Arroyo to amend the country’s constitution in order to change the political structure of the Philippines from a presidential system to a parliamentary model of government.

Bishop Ramento served as a convener of Pilgrims for Peace and was also a provincial leader of the human rights group Karapatan, one of the most active local organizations on reporting the ongoing extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. Tarlac City is the area where now-retired General Jovito Palaparan, known as the ‘butcher’, was formerly assigned, and there were a number of serious cases of killings and disappearances allegedly carried out by military personnel there, making this a particularly sensitive region. Bishop Ramento was also the chairperson of the board of the Workers’ Assistance Centre, a labour group in Rosario, Cavite Province. In addition, he was a strong supporter of the farm workers of Hacienda Luisita.

Police investigators have been quick to declare his death as a case of robbery and homicide. Two days after the killing, the PNP pronounced Bishop Ramento’s case “solved” following the arrest of four alleged suspects in Tarlac City – all of whom had criminal records. While the PNP insists Bishop Ramento’s brutal murder was not politically motivated, his family believes otherwise. To counter public opinion to this effect inside the country and abroad, the police resorted to labelling accusations that his death was politically motivated as being “propaganda”.

Whether or not Bishop Ramento’s murder was politically motivated, his killing is an example of a failed protection system and the unwillingness of the police authorities to acknowledge this fact. The PNP, in particular the Tarlac City police, cannot exonerate themselves from their obvious failure to afford protection to Bishop Ramento, who had been the subject of continual death threats.

Killing of human rights defenders
One issue that is of particular concern is the fact that the killings and other related human rights abuses, including death threats, are clearly targeting human rights defenders. Human rights defenders are those persons who, through their work, are engaged in promoting and protecting the rights of others within society. These are not necessarily just persons working for human rights organisations, but may include lawyers, journalists, union workers, student activists and members of the clergy, among others.

Human rights defenders do not have special rights above and beyond those of other members of society, but their protection is of great importance as the role they play within society is crucial in ensuring that poor or marginalised persons’ rights are protected. If these persons are targeted due to their work, not only is it a loss to society in terms of the demise of these persons, but it also engenders a loss for those that they support and for the human rights climate and fabric of society in general. It was with this special need for protection in mind that the international community created the United Nations mandate on human rights defenders within the organisation£r human rights Special Procedures–the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders.

Human rights defenders with whom the fact-finding mission spoke frequently admitted to having received death threats. Human rights defenders are also thought to have been included in the so-called Order of Battle lists issued by the military, which are blacklists that include the names of individuals that the military are seeking on suspicion of being rebels. Due to security reasons relating to the risks that individuals run in pursuing human rights cases, the members of fact-finding mission have decided to not divulge the identities of at-risk persons that were interviewed during the mission. The need for this has been underlined by the recent killing of Bishop Alberto Ramento. This need also illustrates the level of insecurity that exists in the country.

Killing of journalists
According to the International Federation of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, 82 journalists have been killed since 1986; over 50 during President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo£r time in office. During the previous two years, the number of such killings has been above 10 per year. From January to July 2006, there have already been nine killings.

Media monitoring organisation Reporters Sans Frontieres has recently reported that the situation in the Philippines has worsened. The country now lies 142nd in the world in the organisation£r global press freedom index. RSF stated that the Philippines ‘was three places down with continuing murders of journalists and increased legal harassment, including by President Gloria Arroyo’s husband.”

In fact, members of the media have already sought assistance from local police, and demanded that the police take the murderers to court. Unfortunately, all of those arrested in connection with the killings appear not to be the leaders or masterminds behind the killings. In some cases it has been revealed that even when the perpetrator revealed the identities of their leaders to the police, the police stopped investigating the cases without providing an explanation.

Task Force Usig
Task Force Usig (TFU) was set up on 13 May 2006 with a mandate to investigate political killings in the Philippines. According to TFU, it is mandated to “provide the focus and resources to immediately investigate, solve and prosecute the perpetrators, as well as safeguarding the lives and limbs of high-risked personalities, such as party sectoral members and media practitioners”.

TFU stated that they had on their records 101 cases of killings of party-list members: 27 of these had reportedly been investigated; 74 were still being investigated. With regard to cases of killings of journalists and persons working in the media sector, TFU was working on 26 individual cases and claims to have investigated 20 of these, with six still needing to be investigated fully. The status of the cases that were still under investigation remains unclear, but these cases represent 80 out of 127 cases–some 63 per cent. Given the reports from victims?relatives and concerned groups, who claim that in the majority of cases the police have failed to investigate cases properly if at all, there are concerns that many of these cases remain at a very early stage of investigation.

Although TFU was only formed in mid-May 2006, as a body that solely comprises of members of the police, it draws upon the entire register of activities of the police in terms of investigations that had been carried out concerning the cases spanning back to 2001. It is evident through the figures provided that only a very low proportion of cases has been investigated thoroughly. Added to this is the fact that the cases under consideration by TFU only represent a fraction of the over 700 cases of politically motivated killings that have been identified by many sources, including members of the Philippines’ Congress, and local and international groups. There is little doubt as to the scale of the problem of these killings. For example, according to figures provided by prominent members of the House of Representatives (which are in the same range as human rights groups?estimates) there were a total of 704 extrajudicial killings between 20 January 2001 and 8 July 2006. This includes over 290 members and leaders of progressive organisations: for example 113 members of Bayan Muna, 36 members of the Anakpawis party (Party of the Toiling Masses) and three members of the Gabriela Women£r party. Added to these 290 victims are numerous cases of journalists, lawyers and judges, members of the clergy, with a large portion also being persons that are unaffiliated with any movement but have been targeted due to suspicion of being sympathisers or members of the NPA.

There are concerns about whether any investigations conducted by Task Force Usig will conclude that the killings are politically motivated and are being carried out by state actors, even if this is in fact the case. These stem from concerns with regard to the independence of the body. TFU is comprised solely of members of the police, which makes it highly unlikely that it will find that members of the police are guilty of having committed any killings as part of their active, official duties. The same is expected with cases allegedly committed by members of the military, who wield extensive power in the country. Indeed, TFU admitted that it shares information with the military concerning its investigations. In the only case thus far that has led to a conviction in court–the case of killing of journalist Edgar Damalerio–the person found guilty was a policeman, but no connection was made between him and the state. For all the other reported killings, no convictions had been made at the time of the fact-finding mission. Hundreds of killings remain unsolved, with the perpetrators enjoying impunity for their actions.

Despite the fact that TFU is tasked with investigating political killings, the head of the task force repeatedly told the members of the fact-finding mission during the interview that there is no government policy of politically motivated killings of opposition party list members, journalists or activists. According to him, no members of the armed forces or the police have killed any such people. Such a statement from the head of a unit that is tasked with investigating such killings is inappropriate before all cases have been fully investigated. This is pre-judging the findings of any investigation and leads to the suspicion that the unit is tasked with attempting to cover up any state responsibility for such acts. It is therefore a concern that TFU will only fully investigate or resolve cases where the findings will exonerate the state, or will investigate in such a way as to skew the findings in such a way as to cover up the state£r involvement.

Another significant point that resulted from the fact finding mission£r interview with TFU leadership was that when asked about the status of investigations into the forced disappearances on 26 June 2006 of two female university students–Karen EmpeãÄ and Sherlyn Cadapan–that were allegedly perpetrated by the armed forces, the head of TFU stated that they were not investigating this case as it did not fall with the Task Force£r mandate. TFU only investigates cases where a body has been found, according to General Razon. This raises a key question: who then is tasked with investigating cases of forced disappearance? One assumes that it must be the regular police system, but this has already been exposed as being incompetent at investigating such cases–TFU was set up specifically to investigate the killings in the country, as the police had thus far failed to do so. There is little reason to believe that the police will exhibit any greater competency in dealing with forced disappearances.

Forced disappearances are in general synonymous with killings, albeit without traces of the victim being found. This implies that the perpetrators of killings need only to ensure that no bodies are found to ensure that no proper investigations are launched into the forced disappearances. According to the figures available from NGO sources, there have been a total of over 180 forced disappearances since 2001 in the Philippines, with none of the victims in question having ¥Ourfaced? It can be assumed that most of these persons have likely been killed. The lack of efforts to investigate these disappearances as a priority is a glaring problem and cannot be explained away due to issues concerning scopes of mandates. The government needs to ensure that effective, impartial and independent investigations are launched into these cases of disappearance, as hopes remain that some of these persons are still alive. It may not be enough to extend TFU£r mandate, as there are already concerns with regard to its independence and effectiveness. Any body that is tasked with investigating the allegations of politically motivate killings should also cover forced disappearances.

Furthermore, TFU claims that the witness protection system in the Philippines is working, although when asked about the status of investigations into one of the country£r highest profile case of killings, the Hacienda Luisita killings in 2004, in which seven demonstrating workers were shot and killed and some 200 persons were injured (see further details concerning this incident below), TFU claimed that investigations were not advancing because witnesses were not forthcoming. This indicates that the witness protection system is not working. When pressed, the head of TFU claimed that witnesses were not forthcoming because the Communist Party of the Philippines/NPA had perpetrated the shootings, but this does not stand to reason as, in such a case, there would be no reason for the witnesses to fear being under police protection–quite the opposite.

TFU also claimed that they had a so-called ¥Oolution efficiency?of 77 per cent concerning the 26 cases of slain journalists. By this they mean that they consider their job as being over, but in reality all this means is that they have completed investigations and charges have been filed against a suspect. It does not mean that the trial has been conducted and that the suspect has been found guilty and sentenced. TFU is simply doing away with the presumption of innocence. The effectiveness of TFU should not be measured by the number of cases that it has investigated, but rather by the frequency with which these investigations have led to successful prosecutions and the total number of such prosecutions. When measured this way, TFU£r results can only be considered as being an abject failure.

The legal system in the Philippines suffers from a lacuna that enables the current human rights crisis in the country. This lacuna is the lack of a credible, permanent body within the criminal justice system that is specifically designed and mandated to investigate all allegations of crimes committed by state-agents, notably members of the police and armed forces, or any proxies thereof. Such bodies are by nature different than those that look into crimes by ordinary citizens. Without such a system, the investigation of killings and forced disappearances and other human rights violations is by its nature open to being compromised and dysfunctional. The police system is tasked with carrying out criminal investigations into crimes committed by Filipino citizens. Such a system will naturally fail to function when it is tasked with investigating the police itself, or indeed other state agents, such as members of the military.

As it stands, Task Force Usig clearly does not comply with these requirements, for the following reasons:

  • The lack of independence and credibility of its members;
  • It is not adequately resourced to carry out the number of investigations required in an appropriate time-frame;
  • It is not evaluated based upon the extent to which prosecutions result from its investigations, as shown by its self-professed “solution efficiency” statistics;
  • It clearly suffers from political impediments, as are illustrated by the unit head’s statement that there is no government policy of politically motivated killings of opposition party-list members, journalists or activists, which shows clear political bias despite the fact that the majority of cases have not even been investigated, let alone prosecuted;
  • There is no effective witness protection mechanism in place, which is illustrated by the fact that the unit’s head explained that the lack of progress in investigations should be blamed on the lack of forthcoming witnesses.

Due to mounting local and international pressure concerning the lack of investigations into the killings, on 1 August 2006 President Arroyo called upon Task Force Usig to complete the investigation of 10 cases in 10 weeks. While it is true that many have been calling for the authorities to take measures to ensure that the cases of killings are investigated, the effort made by the President in this regard is derisory. At the time of this statement, there was on average one killing being perpetrated every two days in the Philippines. With a total of over 700 allegations of such killings pending concerning the period spanning 2001 to mid-2006, it would take Task Force Usig over 14 years to investigate the backlog of cases at this rate. 10 cases in 10 weeks would not even match the number of cases being perpetrated within that time-frame. Investigations are also not an end in themselves ?suspected perpetrators must be prosecuted and found guilty for the whole process to have any value in terms of delivering justice.

The disappearance of Sherlyn Cadapan, Karen Empeño & Manuel Merino

Two student activists from the University of the Philippines, Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño, were reportedly forcibly disappeared along with a farm-worker on 26 June 2006.

The two students were staying at a house in Purok 6, Barangay (village) San Miguel, Hagonoy when armed men, believed to be from the military, forcibly abducted them. Sherlyn Cadapan was pregnant at the time of the incident. One witness related that during the abduction Cadapan was kicked in the stomach by one of her abductors. Empeño was reportedly blindfolded using her own shirt after it had been taken off her by one of the abductors.

When farm-worker Manuel Merino confronted the attackers to help the victims during their abduction, he was also bound and abducted along with the two students. Witnesses relate that the victims were seen being taken away by the perpetrators in a service vehicle bearing license plate number RTF 597 in the direction of a nearby town in Iba, Hagonoy. The whereabouts of the victims remain unknown to date.

After reports of the incident surfaced, a local human rights group Alyansa ng mga Mamamayan para sa Pantaong Karapatan-Bulacan (People’s Alliance for Human Rights-Bulacan) immediately formed a quick response team in an effort to locate the victims. They proceeded to the headquarters of the 56th Infantry Battalion of the Philippines Army in Iba, Hagonoy, Bulacan where they saw the getaway vehicle that had reportedly been used by the perpetrators. The quick response team however was refused entry inside the headquarters. While they were outside, a vendor asked them, “Are you looking for the women?” referring to the victims they were looking for. The vendor, however, keep silent when the group said they are indeed looking for three missing persons, of whom two were women.

The military denied having the three persons in custody. However, the various witness testimonies, which have identified military personnel as having abducted the three persons in question, along with the presence of the vehicle used to carry out this act within the military headquarters, point to the military’s involvement.

A person whom the military allegedly illegally arrested but later released on 28 June 2006, Alberto Ramirez, has claimed that Manuel Merino is being used by the military as a guide. The service vehicle used in transporting Ramirez following his arrest had the same license plate number as the vehicle used in abducting the three victims. Ramirez was reportedly taken to an army detachment in Barangay (village) Mercado, Hagonoy, Bulacan. Upon his arrival at the army detachment, Ramirez was asked whether he knew Cadapan and Empeño, which he denied.

On July 12, the UP Diliman University Council passed a resolution expressing concern with regard to the abduction and disappearance of two of their students. Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary, Ronaldo Puno, and Department of National Defense Secretary, Avelino J. Cruz, were requested by the school authorities to help locate the two students.

Despite these requests and concerted activities on the part of the families of the victims and several human rights groups to find the three disappeared persons, their whereabouts and fates remain unknown.

The military has since reportedly stated that the two students were members of the NPA, however the administration of the University of the Philippines has denied any such accusations and confirmed that they were both students on its register. The Supreme Court of the Philippines has also released an order for the military to release Empeño and Cadapan, but the military has thus far taken no action concerning this order.

Melo Commission
On 21 August 2006 the president established a new commission of inquiry, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo, to investigate the killings. Coming just a few weeks after having ordered Task Force Usig to carry out the aforementioned investigations, the Melo Commission represents a tacit admission of the lack of effectiveness of TFU. There are also concerns with regard to this latest commission£r independence and ability to deliver justice concerning the killings.

The commission was established under Presidential Administrative Order No. 157, and is to report to the president on “action and policy recommendations, including appropriate prosecution and legislative proposals if any, aimed at eradicating the root causes of extrajudicial executions and breaking such cycles of violence one and for all” It can also call on the Armed Forces of the Philippines, PNP, the National Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice and any other law enforcement agency to assist it in carrying out its mandate. The commission was to also include National Bureau of Investigation Director Nestor Mantaring, Chief State Prosecutor Jovencito ZuãÄ, Roman Catholic Bishop Camilo Gregorio and state university official Nelia Gonzales. Bishop Gregorio later turned down the opportunity to join the Commission and was replaced.

Unfortunately, there are also serious concerns about the Melo Commission£r independence. Many view this as yet another hollow attempt by the authorities to appear to be taking action, to appease critics, without taking the measures that serious nature of this crisis requires.

All of the Melo Commission£r members have been appointed by the president. The commission itself has no contempt powers, meaning that it has no power to charge anyone with contempt if they refuse to cooperate with a subpoena to appear before the commission. It also has no prosecuting powers and no witness protection powers. It has begun its investigation by hearing high-ranking police and military officials instead of hearing the victims’ families and witnesses, reinforcing fears felt by individuals if they testify against the state.

Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines
The members of the fact-finding mission met with officials of the Commission on Human Rights at their offices, notably Commissioners Eligio Mallari, Quintin Cueto III and Dominador Calamba II and Atty. Mojica.

In response to a series of questions relating to the spate of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines and the CHR’s actions concerning these, the members of the CHR stated that they only have the power to investigate case but could only make recommendations for prosecutions as a result of their investigations.

One of the commissioners blamed the witnesses for not coming forward, thus hampering their investigations. This was a surprising statement, because it is clear that witnesses are not coming forward because they fear reprisals, with the onus being on the CHR and other bodies or mechanisms within the state to provide a secure means for such witnesses to come forward. The lack of a functioning, credible witness protection system must be blamed for the lack of witnesses, not the witnesses themselves. One commissioner expressed frustrations and claimed that the commission could only bark but could not bite.

In order for the CHR to be able to carry out its mandate more effectively its commissioners must be appointed in a transparent way, so as to guarantee their independence from the authorities: currently commissioners are appointed by the president. The CHR is also reduced in its effectiveness due to the fact that when it recommends that criminal actions be launched as the result of its investigations, the recommendations are reviewed by several bodies, which often results in these recommendations not being implemented. Under the existing rules on criminal cases, should the CHR recommend the filing of criminal charges against members of the police, the military or any other alleged perpetrators, public prosecutors are given the authority to review the findings before the charges are filed. The CHR’s findings can either be rejected or approved by them. When the alleged perpetrators are members of the police or the military, the Office of the Ombudsman, the National Police Commission, the Judge Advocate General and other quasi-judicial officers are also given authority to review the CHR£r findings. This system of review leads not only to delays in the process, but frequently results in the rejection of a case before the charges can be filed in court.

The fact-finding mission was present in the Philippines for five days. In this relatively limited time it was able to speak with a significant number of different actors in the country, including members of the authorities as well as members of groups that are being targeted by the killings. The purpose of the mission to the Philippines was to attempt to conduct an impartial and unbiased investigation into the killings in order to establish the reality of the situation first-hand. What can therefore be said of this reality?

1. It is clear that there is a serious and continuing problem of politically-motivated extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances in the Philippines;
2. These killings are targeting persons from the left of the political spectrum and those working in favour of human rights and the poor or marginalised sections of society;
3. The killings are being perpetrated in a fairly consistent manner, by armed, typically unidentifiable men using similar modus operandi;
4. Witnesses and victims’ family members consistently accuse the military or persons acting on their behalf of having perpetrated these crimes;
5. In the case of the killing of Father Sta. Rosa, there is clear evidence that members of the military were involved and had been ordered to carry out such an operation;
6. The authorities are failing to investigate these most grave crimes with any credible effort or results, leading to a deep climate of impunity;
7. Task Force Usig lacks independence, has an overly restrictive mandate in terms of forced disappearances, and its leader has made statements that lead to the belief that the unit is attempting to cover up the State£r involvement in the killings, rather than carry out its mandate in good faith. The Melo Commission also appears to be ineffective;
8. A permanent body with a clear mandate, enforceable powers, independence and sufficient resources is required in order to ensure the investigation and subsequent prosecution of all State-agents against whom there are allegations of crimes and human rights violations;
9. The failings in the witness protection system, notably concerning resources, independence and effectiveness, are proving to be a hindrance to conclusive investigations and prosecutions. The lack of public trust in and use of this system by witnesses exposes a flaw in the authorities’ logic: if, as is suggested by the authorities, the killings are being perpetrated by the NPA, then civilians would surely have no problems seeking protection from the authorities. The lack of public trust in this system tends to indicate that the authorities are not willing to provide protection to individuals. This, in turn, suggests that the authorities are complicit in the killings;
10. At the time of the fact finding mission, the authorities had not even denounced the killings publicly. While this has been done since that time, it remains disappointing that such action was only taken once international condemnation began to grow;
11. The authorities have also consistently failed to collaborate with international actors, for example United Nations experts on the specific human rights violations in question here. Such behaviour also tends to indicate a lack of good faith and potentially complicity in these human rights violations on the part of the state.

The state is responsible for protecting the lives and ensuring the security of its citizens. The lack of investigations into human rights abuses and lack of punishment of the perpetrators of these acts represents a grave failure of the state with regard to its responsibilities. It leads to a pervasive climate of impunity, which in turn breeds further violence and abuses within society. In the case that illegal opposition armed groups or individuals not connected to the state are perpetrating the killings, as is claimed by the government and Task Force Usig, it is in the political interest of the authorities to shed light on this. The lack of credible investigations, notably where there are allegations of the involvement of the military or other proxy groups acting on behalf of the state, give rise to suspicions that the state is indeed complicit in the violations, regardless of whether this is true or not. Any excuses concerning a lack of resources or sophistication of investigation techniques should not suffice to explain these lacunae. International assistance is surely available upon request to assist in minimizing any such problems.

Evidence collected during the fact finding mission indicates that the Armed Forces of the Philippines and other state-actors or proxies may well be engaged in a campaign to destroy not only illegal armed leftist groups, but also members of the legal “leftist” political movement. This campaign is also targeting journalists, lawyers, church workers, human rights defenders and any persons working in support of the poor and marginalized people in the country, which the authorities reportedly arbitrarily consider as being ¤‚nemies of the State.?The persons targeted have in numerous cases been subjected to death threats thought to emanate from state-actors before being killed. The damage to the social fabric of the Philippines will likely be significant and long term if this situation is not remedied. The people already live under the shroud of violence, fear and injustice. In light of this, the government of the Philippines is called upon to:

1. Vigorously condemn all killings and forced disappearances and immediately order the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine National Police, and any proxy or paramilitary forces operating under their authority or with their backing, to ensure that no further killings of civilians occur.

2. Promptly and impartially investigate the killing or disappearance of any member of society. In particular, the persecution of persons for reason of their political affiliation, political beliefs or work in favour of human rights, must be investigated and prosecuted effectively and efficiently. The killing of any lawyer, judge, journalist or media worker, member of the clergy, or human rights or political activist for reason of their work or profile cannot be tolerated by any society.

3. Ensure that there is a fully and verifiably independent body for investigating any allegations of human rights abuses, notably concerning past and ongoing extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. This body should be able to receive and launch investigations concerning criminal cases as well as initiate criminal proceedings against individuals. The fact-finding mission has serious concerns regarding the police£r ability to conduct effective investigations, as well as the independence and effectiveness of Task Force Usig.

4. Provide the investigating body with a clear and legally-binding mandate and powers from the president that have also been approved by the proper legal authorities, comprised of persons whose integrity in directing investigations in a thorough and impartial manner should not be in question, as well as independent and competent investigators, with all resources required to carry out its mandated activities.

5. Enable the investigating body to conduct investigations for the purpose of launching prosecutions, with the body£r performance being evaluated based on the extent to which prosecutions are launched. No prior political approval or impediments should be created to obstruct the legal process emanating from investigations conducted by this body. Implied in this is that investigators are aware that they are responsible only to the prosecuting and judicial authorities and only in the manner recognised in the law on due process in the country. Any interference in the body or its activities must be an offence punishable under the law.

6. Establish a fully independent, well resourced and secure witness protection system under the aforementioned investigation body, to ensure that witnesses are willing and able to participate in investigations and legal proceedings concerning human rights violations, in particular the extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances in question in this report.

7. Guarantee that all perpetrators found guilty of having carried out or ordered extrajudicial killings or forced disappearance receive appropriate punishment in line with domestic law and international law and standards.

8. Guarantee adequate reparation to the victims or their families, in line with international standards.

9. Guarantee that Task Force Usig and the PNP clarify whether or not a Lawyer£r Task Force exists and explain the reason for the conflicting information on the existence of such a task force.

10. Ensure that the Department of Justice refrains from adopting aggressive prosecution tactics that compromise the integrity of the judicial system.

11. Halt the use of blacklists such as the so-called ¤Œrder of Battle?that brand individuals as being ¤‚nemies of the State?without substantiating evidence to support these accusations, as this may lead to extrajudicial actions being taken against these persons.

12. Provide adequate and effective protection to all persons who receive death threats, to guarantee their personal security and ensure that they do not become the next victims of extrajudicial killings.

13. Ensure that individuals and organisations are able to carry out their work without risks, threats, impediments, and that these individuals are not killed as a result of or in connection with their work, notably if this work is related to the freedoms of expression and opinion, political freedoms and human rights.

14. Live up to the Philippines?pledges to the international community and cooperate fully with the United Nations human rights mechanisms, ensuring that the government responds fully and in good faith to communications by the United Nations Special Rapporteurs, as well as issues standing invitations for these procedures to conduct visits to the country, notably the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions and the Working Group on Forced Disappearances.

15. Invite international experts and organisations to assist in the fact-finding and investigation process and cooperate fully with them in this regard.

16. Without delay become a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and ensure the full implementation of all other international instruments to which the Philippines is party.

Text adapted from report of Hong Kong Mission for Human Rights & Peace in the Philippines, 23-28 July 2006, organised by the Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights in the Philippines, in cooperation with the secretariat of the International Campaign to Stop the Killings in the Philippines. The mission comprised of representatives from the Asian Human Rights Commission; Asian Students Association; Hong Kong Bar Association; Hong Kong Christian Institute; Hong Kong Journalists Association; Justice and Peace Commission of the HK Catholic Diocese; St. John£r Cathedral, and United Filipinos in Hong Kong, and in addition journalists from the South China Morning Post newspaper and Yazhou Zhoukan magazine. The full report is available online at:

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