Getting away with murder

Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

With gross violations of human rights continuing unabated and avenues for seeking justice and redress completely lacking, the Philippine government’s institutions are showing little sign of having the will or capacity to deliver justice. The human rights crisis in the country has worsened during 2006. There are numerous serious cases, in particular the shocking targeted extrajudicial killings of activists, enforced disappearance and torture, being documented almost daily. In fact, these gross violations have already become a subconsciously acceptable way of life for Filipinos. These rights violation cases only represent a fairly well-documented fraction of the reality of human rights—or the lack of—in the country.

While the government claims to have upheld human rights at home and abroad, in reality the victims of violations and their relatives are experiencing the complete opposite. The government’s election to two of the United Nations main organs—the Human Rights Council and the Economic and Social Council in May and November respectively—does not exonerate the government from its bleak human rights record. Victims have lost faith in the criminal justice system’s vital pillars: the police, prosecution and judiciary. Should they file cases in court and with quasi-judicial bodies, expectations are low concerning the delivery of adequate and prompt justice in most cases.

What can victims expect from the Philippine National Police (PNP) when in fact its personnel are not only entirely incapable of carrying out effective investigations, but some stand accused of having committed—or being accomplices to—these crimes? While the police are on occasion able to identify suspects, make arrests and file charges in court, the results of investigations are frequently challenged or questioned by victims themselves. Police investigators likewise often make premature pronouncements as to the motive of killings, and reject any suggestions from the victims’ families that may be helpful in the investigation of the case. The police have also adopted a strange definition of what they consider as a “solved” case. Once a case is with the prosecutor, their job is done. What happens after that is someone else’s business.

Although the government is a State-party to international human rights covenants and conventions, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, its actual implementation of their provisions is derisory. Furthermore, the government has failed to implement most of the December 2003 concluding observations of the UN Human Rights Committee regarding the ICCPR. The unabated extrajudicial killings of activists could have been prevented if not completely stopped had the government seriously addressed [the] “lack of appropriate measures to investigate crimes allegedly committed by State security forces and agents,” and taken all necessary measures to improve the witness protection programme.

Widespread extrajudicial killings and links to the military and police
From January to the start of December 2006, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) documented the cases of 56 victims of extrajudicial killing around country. This is a fraction of the total number that has occurred in recent years. Attacks on human rights defenders, political activists, human rights lawyers, labour leaders, religious leaders, journalists, peasants and others serving the poor and defending human rights have intensified this year, with killings taking place almost daily in recent months.

There are clear patterns before victims are killed: they receive death threats, their names are included in so-called “orders of battle” by the military, they are tagged as either being sympathetic to the left or having “communist” ideologies, and they are subjected to harassment and surveillance. But there are also cases in which the victims had no known enemies and were killed for motives that also remain unknown. Witnesses and the victims’ families—including women and children—are also targeted.

Despite mounting pressure on the government from inside the country and abroad, the police have downplayed the killings by stating that they are not a “systematic and widespread” phenomenon. They have also tried to exonerate themselves by putting the blame on the New People’s Army for perpetrating the killings against “enemy spies” and “counter-revolutionaries.” There is an entrenched bias against groups critical of the government. Instead of acknowledging police incapability to halt the killings, there are attempts to discredit efforts made by human rights groups to document and inform about them.

The AHRC has reported a number of cases in which members of the military were allegedly involved in the extrajudicial killings and other gross violation of human rights. In particular, retired Major General Jovito Palparan, the former commander of the 7th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army, and his men stand accused of the extrajudicial killing of 61-year-old activist Ofelia Rodriguez (a.k.a. Nanay Perla) of Barangay Divisoria, Mexico, Pampanga on 16 January 2006; the abduction and extrajudicial killing of Allan Ibasan and Dante Salgado on 30 or 31 January 2006 at Sta. Ignacia, Tarlac; the extrajudicial killing of 19-year-old activist Audie Lucero in Barangay Capitangan, Abucay, Bataan on 13 February 2006; the forced disappearance of Reynaldo Manalo (32) and Raymond Manalo (22) of Barangay Bohol na Mangga, San Ildefonso, Bulacan on 14 February 2006; the forced disappearance of labour leader Rogelio Concepcion (36) in Barangay Mataas na Parang, San Ildefonso, Bulacan on 6 March 2006; and, the forced disappearance of 24-year-old activist Ronald Intal of Barangay Asturias, Tarlac City on 3 April 2006.

None of these allegations against Major General Palparan and his men have been thoroughly investigated. The police instead exonerated him and his men even before subjecting them to investigations. While the victims and families of the dead are living in enormous fear, Major General Palparan meanwhile is receiving commendations from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself. The president has thereby already exonerated Major General Palparan of gross abuses even before any impartial investigation, effective prosecution or court decision. The president also allegedly attempted to provide Major General Palparan with de facto immunity by nominating him for appointment as deputy director for counter-insurgency in the National Security Council.

Flawed or inexistent investigations by the police
Investigations conducted by the PNP into extrajudicial killings are either completely inconclusive or unsatisfactory. The police system lacks the ability to conduct forensic investigations and professionally gather evidence upon which to build a case that will stand up in court. It is also unwilling to properly investigate. For example, during an interview conducted by an international fact-finding team, General Avelino I Razon Jr., the head of the PNP’s Task Force Usig assigned to inquire into the killings, denied that any members of the armed forces or the police have carried out politically-motivated killings. Furthermore, the current structure and operation of the Task Force causes great concern, as it shares information and intelligence with the army and other authorities, which severely undermines its independence and effectiveness.

Take the case of development activists George Vigo and his wife Maricel who were killed in Kidapawan City on 19 June 2006. According to Maricel’s younger sister, Maribel, the manner of a task force investigation was not thorough and was completed too quickly. The findings were also contrary to another report by local police who initially conducted the investigation. One of the victims’ relatives was made to sign an affidavit that the police had prepared, the content of which was not properly explained to her. It was later found that the affidavit had been used by the police to file the case in court. The version given by Vigo’s relatives concerning the motive of the killing was completely ignored.

The police were also quick to declare the 3 October 2006 brutal killing of Bishop Alberto Ramento, a prominent human rights defender, as a case of robbery and homicide. However, Bishop Ramento’s family and his fellow clergy believe that his murder was methodically planned and politically motivated. Bishop Ramento himself confirmed having received several death threats before he was killed. He once 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.” The police investigators claimed there were missing belongings at Bishop Ramento’s quarters, an indication of robbery. But Bishop Ramento’s family and a human rights group that conducted a separate investigation denied the police’s claim that robbery was the motive of the killing. They established that the belongings had already been taken out from Bishop Ramento’s convent several days before he was attacked. The police did not consider this version. They declared the case solved based on their findings.

It is the police investigators’ duty to determine all aspects of a killing and to identify the perpetrators by considering all information available to them. Only after they have exhausted all leads in an investigation should they produce their findings and make any pronouncements (as long as these remain non-prejudicial to the prosecution of the suspect). To reject information coming from the families of the dead is totally unacceptable, and indicates a deep-rooted bias against victims. The police are themselves instruments to deny justice and redress. Without rigorous police reforms, the policing system in the Philippines will not be made effective.

Delays in resolving cases by the ombudsman
Promptness in resolving cases of gross human rights violations is essential. Often unnecessary delays place victims and witnesses at serious risk, while giving the accused plenty of time to counterattack. In the Philippines, such delays compound the problems caused by non-existent protection mechanisms.

Under existing procedure, before any complaint is filed in court against a state officer the result of investigation by the public prosecutor should be submitted to the Office of the Ombudsman for the Military and Other Law Enforcement Office, a quasi-judicial body dealing with complaints against police and military officials, for review and recommendation. The ombudsman has failed to resolve cases in a timely manner, including whether or not murder charges should be filed against two military lieutenants and several others attached to the 25th Infantry Battalion over the alleged killing of three farmers and wounding of three others in Davao del Sur, Mindanao on 8 February 2005. Almost two years on, the case against them cannot be filed in court as the ombudsman has not finished deliberations.

The ombudsman has also failed to promptly resolve cases concerning allegations of torture, illegal arrest and detention. No substantial progress has been made concerning the six policemen accused of brutally torturing eleven persons, including two minors, in Buguias, Benguet on 14 February 2006. The ombudsman’s assurances that the alleged torture of Haron Abubakar Buisan by policemen in General Santos City on 12 December 2005 would be looked into also have produced no result. No investigations were conducted or charges have been brought against the perpetrators. The torture victim remains in jail and is facing false charges against him as a result of evidence allegedly collected through the use of torture.

Proclamations, orders and “partly unconstitutional” policies
Excessive violations of civil and political rights have also occurred following the declaration and issuance of Presidential Proclamation 1017, General Order No. 5 and the Calibrated Pre-emptive Response policy. The former placed the entire Philippines under a “State of National Emergency” while the general order was pursuant to it, directing the Armed Forces of the Philippines to “maintain public peace, order and safety and to prevent and suppress lawless violence”.

When the proclamation was made on 24 February 2006, there were illegal arrests and detentions, violent dispersal of protestors and fabricated charges filed against those critical of the government, as well as an illegal raid on a newspaper without a search warrant. One of those illegally arrested—Anakpawis Representative Crispin Beltran—remains in detention and is still facing rebellion charges. The police arrested him with a 21 year-old warrant on charges that had long been dismissed by the court.

After petitions were filed questioning the legality of the actions, the Supreme Court ruled that,

The provisions of PP 1017 commanding the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] to enforce laws not related to lawless violence, as well as decrees promulgated by the President, are declared UNCONSTITUTIONAL…

In addition, it held that the arrest and dispersal of persons in the rallies, “in the absence of proof that these petitioners were committing acts constituting lawless violence, invasion or rebellion” and the search of the newspaper premises were declared unconstitutional, as well as provisions under the response policy that freed law-enforcement officers from having to exercise maximum restraint.

While the constitution guarantees that “no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall issue except upon probable cause”, police and military men on most occasions arbitrarily and excessively violate this provision with impunity. Arrests and searches in the absence of a lawful court order are common. Often the police, as well as the military, effect arrest and search without warrants, justified as part of a “hot pursuit” operation. In practice, the police and military decide when an arrest and search can be made without a warrant despite not having any legal basis for doing so.

For instance, when development worker Uztadz Kusain Abedin was arrested and subsequently detained on August 3 in Cotabato City, the arresting military personnel did not have arrest warrants with them. They detained the victim on the basis of an SMS they received from an informant. Had Abedin’s relatives and lawyer not intervened the soldiers would have not released him without charges. Likewise, Wenifreda Marigondon was arrested without a warrant on 25 November 2005 in Plaridel, Quezon. She gave birth at the military hospital the following month. It was not until the first week of April 2006 that she was taken to the Regional Trial Court, Branch 62, for the preliminary hearing of her case. Only then did she find out that she was charged with rebellion.

Similarly, eight workers who were illegally arrested and detained in Rosario, Cavite on 28 September 2006 had their personal belongings searched without warrants. Only upon arrival at the police station did the arresting officers try to figure out what charges could be filed against them. The arrest also did not meet the requirements for an arrest without warrant under Rule 113 of the 1985 Rules of Criminal Procedure, which requires that there be an attempted offence or an actual offence occurring or having occurred, or where the person is an escaped convict. This was not the case also when Regional Intelligence and Investigation Division personnel allegedly illegally searched and harassed members of the convent of Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherds in Butuan City on 1 November 2006 when they entered the premises without warrants and heavily armed, having reportedly gone in to the wrong building by mistake.

Under section 16 of the Constitution of the Philippines, “All persons shall have the right to a speedy disposition of their cases before all judicial, quasi-judicial, or administrative bodies.” Section 7 of the Speedy Trial Act of 1998 (Republic Act 8493) stipulates that the time limit on the length of period any accused should be arraigned and subjected to trial is clearly prescribed:

The arraignment of an accused shall be held within thirty (30) days from the filing of the information, or from the date the accused has appeared before the justice, judge or court in which the charge is pending, whichever date last occurs.

Nonetheless, the courts are failing to comply with this obligation. One example is the case of three torture victims Jejhon Macalinsal, Aron Salah and Abubakar Amilhasan. A local court commenced their trial only on 9 August 2005, over two years after they were arraigned on 26 February 2003. The reasons for the delays were variously given as frequent absences or seminars being attended by the presiding judge, the appointment of a new judge, a seminar of lawyers and the absence of a court stenographer. None of these fall under exclusions prescribed by section 10 of the Speedy Trial Act. On 25 October 2006 a police officer set to testify at the scheduled hearing at the Municipal Trial Court, Branch II failed to appear for a second time, because he had been transferred to another station assignment.

Torture and inhumane treatment are prohibited under the constitution, as stipulated by the Bill of Rights. But the failure of the government to enact enabling laws in order to ensure that these rights are protected has denied victims any possibilities of seeking justice and redress for ill-treatment and torture by the police and military such as electric shock, beatings, food and sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, lengthy incommunicado or solitary confinement, harassment, intimidation, extraneous exercises, and death threats. The police and military employ torture with impunity and without fear of prosecution.

Jejhon Macalinsal (L) & his co-accused: Victims of alleged torture & court delay

Take the case of 11 persons, two of them minors, who were brutally tortured following their arrest in Buguias, Benguet on February 12. They were beaten on different parts of their bodies, exposed under the heat of the sun and had their hands tied behind their backs. They were also blindfolded, beaten on the genitals and threatened with death. Some were thrown into a pit and had soil, garbage and other matter dumped over their heads. They were electrocuted, stepped on and had their fingers squeezed with bullets inserted between them. Others were suffocated with plastic bags or had their heads forced into pails of water. Buckets were also hung from their heads and water was poured into them. They were forced to strip naked, at which point they had freezing water sprayed on them, all in an effort to have them admit that they were rebels.

Armed village militia have also resorted to brutal beatings while conducting “arrests”. On 13 August 2006, 16-year-old Don Bon Diego Ramos was severely beaten by a militia in Pasig City. The boy was on his way home after watching a concert when the perpetrators attacked and arrested him. They falsely accused him of throwing stones and creating a disturbance. When the boy asked, “Why are you arresting me?” he was allegedly repeatedly beaten with a wooden club.

No compensation
Republic Act 7309, an Act creating a Board of Claims under the Department of Justice for victims of unjust imprisonment or detention and victims of violent crimes, in principle establishes a means for compensation in its section 3(d) for “any person who is a victim of violent crimes [including those] committed with malice which resulted in death or serious physical and/or psychological injuries, permanent incapacity or disability, insanity, abortion, serious trauma, or committed with torture, cruelly or barbarity”.

The AHRC is not aware of any case where compensation has been awarded. For example, despite repeated appeals, no compensation, medical attention or trauma treatment were afforded to torture victim Haron Abubakar Buisan who is still detained in General Santos City. And although the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines has decided to take up the complaint of torture victims Jejhon Macalinsal and his two companions, it has not issued recommendations for them to receive appropriate compensation and rehabilitation.

Families of the disappeared
There is also inadequate help for the families of disappeared victims. Reynaldo Manalo and his brother Raymond were forcibly abducted and subsequently disappeared on 14 February 2006 in San Ildefonso, Bulacan. Although relatives have tried to seek help from the military to locate the victims—despite having suspicions that the military could be involved—they were only told “not to worry and that they would coordinate with those [personnel] who took custody of the Manalo brothers”. The victims have not been seen since. Their relatives have also gone into hiding, fearing for their lives.

In another case the wife of labour leader Rogelio Concepcion, who was forcibly abducted and disappeared on 6 March 2006, is living in total insecurity. After Rogelio’s abduction, Marissa and her family noticed the suspicious movement of persons not known to them, who are believed to be closely watching them. Despite the high security risk that she and her family are facing, she has not received any protection or assistance. There has also been no help from the authorities to locate her husband, who has not been seen since he was abducted. As a result, the family lives in permanent fear.

There is also the case of journalist and activist Joey Estriber, who was abducted and forcibly disappeared on 3 March 2006. At around 6:20 pm, Estriber was on his way home, when he was dragged by four armed men towards a tinted maroon van parked nearby. As in previous cases, his whereabouts and fate remain unknown and his family has had difficulty finding assistance from government agencies.

Disappeared victims’ families can file habeas corpus petitions, but cannot indict perpetrators in court for the crime of disappearance despite strong circumstantial evidence showing the involvement of either the military or the police. Take the case of two student activists Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño and peasant Manuel Merino, who were abducted on 26 June 2006 in Hagonoy, Bulacan. Cadapan was pregnant at the time. Although the Supreme Court has granted the victims’ families petition for habeas corpus, requiring retired Major General Palparan and others to produce them in court, no progress has been made regarding their whereabouts.

In August and October 2006, six people were forcibly abducted by unknown persons and disappeared in separate incidents in Mindanao. One of them was later found dead with brutal torture marks on his body, while another was freed by his captors. Sitti, the wife of disappeared victim Cadir Malaydan, was with her husband when he was forcibly abducted by armed men in Monkayo, Compostela Valley on October 19. There has been no police investigation and no assistance for her to locate her husband. Another victim, Ustadz Habib Darupo, was released a day after he was abducted in Banaybanay, Davao Oriental on October 24, but only after being tortured by his captors. After his release, no protection was afforded to him and no assistance was given to help him recover from the extreme trauma that he experienced. Again, no effective investigation was conducted to identify the perpetrators. And although Ali Barabato’s body was found three days after he was abducted in Davao City on August 28, the whereabouts of his two companions remain unknown.

The Philippines is a signatory to the 1992 Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. In view of the fact that state agents and others acting on their behalf in the Philippines are known to routinely abduct and disappear persons, there should have been a far greater sense of urgency in enacting a domestic law on forced disappearances. However, House Bill 1556, an Act Defining and Penalizing the Crime of Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance, is yet to be approved.

The ongoing human rights crisis in the Philippines indicates a collapse of the rule of law in the country. While the government claims to uphold human rights and democracy before the international community, including the United Nations, at home there is no possibility for most victims of gross abuses of human rights to get justice and redress. The culture of impunity, including state and non-state actors, is so rife that victims have already lost faith in the government’s criminal justice system. There is extreme fear amongst the victims that exacerbates the deep-rooted culture of silence and unwillingness to fight back, in the country. Those victims who dare to fight back or even to encourage and serve others to assert their own rights are subjected to torture, death threats, disappearance or extrajudicial execution.

Although the abolition of the death penalty in April indicates in theory a respect for the right to life, this has no meaning to the victims of extrajudicial killings and their families. The government is failing to effectively address these killings.

Prior to its election to the UN Human Rights Council, the government of the Philippines pledged to uphold human rights to “the highest norms and standards”. This must seem like a sick joke for most of the country’s people. There is a need for a rigorous international campaign to deepen understanding of what is actually going on in the country. Unless false claims and pretences are confronted and dispelled, the culture of impunity and attacks on human rights and democracy will only continue.

This article consists of edited extracts from the 2006 Annual Human Rights Report of the Asian Human Rights Commission, issued on 10 December 2006. The full text of the Philippines chapter is available online at:

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