Introduction: The criminal justice system of the Philippines is rotten

Editorial board, article 2

This special report, “The criminal justice system of the Philippines is rotten” (article 2, vol. 5, no. 1, February 2007), is the first published by the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) on the situation of criminal justice and wanton killings, disappearances, assault, arbitrary detention and torture by state officers or their agents in the Philippines.

The title of the report is important. Like other parts of Asia, the problems in Philippines are at their most basic problems of criminal justice and the institutions that should function to implement laws: the police, prosecutors and courts. By emphasising the rottenness of the criminal justice system, the authors stress that gross abuses of human rights are occurring daily in the Philippines primarily as a consequence of this condition. The changing of political leadership, invariably the motivating cry for street demonstrators, is meaningless without attempts to stop the deep institutional rot eating through the country¡¦s law-enforcement agencies, courts and bureaucracy.

In 2006, the Philippines was elected to two key United Nations bodies: the Human Rights Council and the Economic and Social Council. Its election was a triumph of diplomacy over reality. As this report amply shows, life for vast numbers of ordinary Filipinos is made a misery by the workings of state agencies. The fact that the country has failed to implement key recommendations that the UN Human Rights Committee made in December 2003, in accordance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also speaks to the low value that the government places on its commitments under international law, despite appearances to the contrary.

This report contains details of 110 specific cases, involving 227 victims, including 81 incidents of killing or attempted killing documented by the sister organisation of the ALRC, the Asian Human Rights Commission since 2004, 62 of them since the start of 2006 alone. The remaining 39 cases relate to incidents of torture, disappearance, abduction, illegal arrest and intimidation.

The ALRC is acutely aware that these represent only a small fraction of the total number of such incidents in the Philippines in recent years. That these incidents are going on constantly is also publicly known in the Philippines, and increasingly, internationally. From the time the words in this introduction are written to the time that this report is published, many more will have fallen victims of gunmen¡¦s bullets, police or military assault, or have received messages on telephones and in letters warning them not to continue in whatever simple things they may be doing for the improvement of their own lives and those of their fellow humans. By default they will also have fallen victim to the failures and neglect of investigators, prosecutors, judges and others duty-bound to protect their rights and uphold the notion of justice, but unwilling or unable to do so.

Notwithstanding, taken together one hundred such cases speak clearly to the patterns of killings by ¡§unidentified gunmen¡¨ on motorcycles or abductions by others in vans, and subsequent limited and failed investigations, non-protection of terrified witnesses and inaction or bias by the Department of Justice and its public prosecutors, labelling of victims as ¡§enemies¡¨ of the state, and belated and flawed interventions by the courts. None of the cases in this report has, to the knowledge of the ALRC, been satisfactorily resolved. Even those where very strong evidence of military involvement exists, no perpetrators in state agencies are known to have been prosecuted.

The report discusses these individual cases with reference in particular to the country¡¦s defective policing, and inept prosecution and witness protection programme, handled by the Department of Justice. It also discusses them with reference to the role of the military, and in particular, the labelling of persons extrajudicially killed as ¡§enemies¡¨ or equivalent, in order to create a category of citizens for whom the ordinary laws no longer need apply and who may be killed without fear of consequences or the prospect of effective investigation. The manner in which this is now being done threatens the entire criminal justice system, and more broadly, the very fabric of government and democracy of the country.

Six suggestions are given for ways to stop the rot, including with reference to the need for an urgent comprehensive review of the Philippines¡¦ criminal justice system; the rationalising of its deficient witness protection programme and law; the strengthening of agencies for the receipt, investigation and prosecution of complaints against police and military officials; the use of labelling; action on findings into extrajudicial killings; and the enactment of domestic laws on torture, enforced disappearance and other fundamental rights in accordance with binding agreements under international treaties and the recommendations of treaty bodies.

Neither the recommendations nor the other contents of the report are in themselves answers to the problems afflicting the criminal justice system of the Philippines. Rather, they are intended as starting points for new ideas and discussion. Where grave problems and abuses are widely known but remain unaddressed, something is very wrong. It is a sign that society has not only of a failed system but of a failure in society: to grasp, think and discuss what is happening. This publication is a small attempt, after some years of work, to provoke new attempts at grasping, thinking and discussing.

In 2006 the Asian Human Rights Commission launched an online petition against the ongoing extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, at The petition is addressed to the justice secretary and other government officials. The text of the petition is among other appendices to this report: open letters to the authorities in the Philippines, the text of the country¡¦s witness protection law, and some of the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee to the Philippines in 2003, which remain to be acted upon. So far over 6000 persons have signed the petition, which has also been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Dutch, from all around the world. We urge any readers who have not done so to please do so now.

One of the striking characteristics about the response to the petition has been the huge number of outraged, angry, thoughtful and poignant comments added by signatories. In recognition of these voices, we are reproducing just a few of them throughout this report. To read all of them, please visit the petition website and click on ¡§signatures¡¨.

This report was authored by staff and colleagues of the ALRC who for security reasons must remain anonymous. It was edited and prepared by Lynn Chu Yau Lam and Nick Cheesman.

The authors wish to acknowledge the following groups for the work that they have done for the advancement on human rights in the Philippines:

Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of People¡¦s Rights)
Task Force Detainees of the Philippines
Workers¡¦ Assistance Center, Inc.
Partnership for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development Services, Inc.
Kilusan Para sa Pambansang Demokrasya
Center for Trade Union and Human Rights
Promotion of Church Peoples¡¦ Response
Cordillera Human Rights Alliance

The authors especially acknowledge the determination of the Filipino people to overcome the obstacles placed before them by their country¡¦s rotten criminal justice system and corrupted institutions. It is their willingness to do this that makes this publication, and others like it, both possible and meaningful.

As “The criminal justice system of the Philippines is rotten” was going to print, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Professor Philip Alston, visited the Philippines and released a summary of his observations.  Shortly thereafter the government made public the findings of the Melo Commission into extrajudicial killings.  The Special Rapporteur’s comments and extracts from the commission report have been added to the appendices and referenced in the body of this document.

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