Tortured justice in the Philippines

Bruce Van Voorhis, Communications Officer, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

The international community and citizens of the Philippines have rightly condemned the hundreds of extrajudicial killings and disappearances that have occurred there since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took office in 2001. Calls have been made for the government to take action and stop these killings and disappearances, and for them to be properly investigated and prosecuted.

What is condemned less often is the state of the country’s justice system, which fails to provide the necessary institutional protection to prevent these human rights violations from occurring so frequently.

A case that illustrates the point is that of the “Abadilla Five”, who were arrested for fatally shooting Col. Rolando Abadilla of the Philippine constabulary, who was himself allegedly a feared hit man of the Marcos regime, in Quezon City on 13 June 1996. The five—Lenido Lumanog, Augusto Santos, Cesar Fortuna, Rameses de Jesus and Joel de Jesus—claim that after being suffocated with plastic bags, electrocuted and brutally beaten they confessed to Abadilla’s murder. Judge Jaime Salazar of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court ignored the arguments of the five men that they had been tortured and they were subsequently convicted and sentenced to death in August 1999.

Several months later the Alex Boncayao Brigade, an urban guerrilla group of the New People’s Army, announced that they were responsible for killing Abadilla. To prove it, one of their members gave an Omega watch allegedly taken from Abadilla’s body to a Catholic priest, Father Roberto Reyes, in January 2000. Ballistics data also indicated that the bullets at the crime scene

This article consists of the edited text from a series of weekly commentaries, entitled Rights & Wrongs, written for UPI Asia Online. All of the original columns, and others, can be read on the UPI website:

matched those used in other killings acknowledged by the group. However, the court failed to reopen the case and entertain this new evidence.

In February 2000, the Supreme Court began a mandatory review of the case as required where capital punishment has been imposed. Nearly five years later, in January 2005, the Supreme Court transferred the review to the Court of Appeal, where it languishes today, more than 11 years after the arrest of the Abadilla Five.

Meanwhile, an investigation conducted by the Commission on Human Rights in June 1996 confirmed that the men had indeed been tortured and recommended that criminal charges be filed against the police officers responsible—Police Chief Superintendent Hercules Cataluna, Police Senior Superintendents Romulo Sales and Bartolome Baluyot, and several others.

State prosecutor Marilyn Campomanes of the Office of the Chief State Prosecutor was assigned the case; but after five years, her preliminary investigation had not been concluded. Finally, in August 2001, the prosecutor’s office dismissed the torture complaint on the rationale that the case was still being reviewed in the country’s highest courts.

Thus, it took five years for the office to decide that a preliminary investigation could not be launched. Consequently, because the review is presently in the Court of Appeal, whose decision will be sent back to the Supreme Court, the torture complaint is in a legal black hole and the police officers have never faced criminal proceedings. In fact, one of the policemen, Baluyot, was accused several years later of torturing another suspect, but was eventually able to retire from the force without any consequences. Cataluna and five other police officers have died in the intervening years.

The case points to a number of problems in the Philippines’ legal system: the use of torture to produce confessions to “solve” crimes rather than relying on ballistics and other professional forms of forensic investigation, the failure of the courts to deny the admission of such torture-induced confessions and, lastly, inordinate delays in the prosecution and judicial processes.

In a country with such a legal system, people see little reason to attempt to attain justice when their rights are violated or a crime is committed. Apathy toward seeking justice thus becomes a byproduct of such a system and ingrained among the populace— a reaction that is most likely welcomed by torturers and other criminals. Another byproduct is impunity for those who exhibit little respect for life.

The decisions of any legal system ultimately are not determined by the institution itself but by people. While reform of the legal system in the Philippines is clearly needed, reform will be of little benefit if the police, prosecutors and judges do not have a passion for justice, if rendering justice is of little concern to them. It is on these grounds that they themselves will be judged.

Anti-terror law sows terror in the Philippines

Republic Act No. 9372—better known as the Human Security Act of 2007 or the Anti-terrorism Act—took effect in the Philippines on 15 July 2007 after being passed by the congress in February and signed into law by President Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo on March 6. However, there is anxiety that instead of ensuring people’s security it will increase their insecurity; that instead of thwarting terror it will engender it. Fear, impunity and more human rights violations are predicted to be among the effects that the law will have on the country.

The concern begins with the very definition of terrorism in the law. The act defines terrorism as actions already outlawed in present laws, such as rebellion or insurrection, coup d’états, murder, kidnapping, arson, hijacking and the illegal possession of firearms and explosives, that lead to “sowing and creating a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace in order to coerce the government to give in to an unlawful demand”.

This vague and sweeping definition leads to questions about the circumstances under which fear and panic can be deemed “widespread and extraordinary”, and what constitutes “coercing the government” and “unlawful demand”. Moreover, why is a special law needed to combat terrorism when what the law defines as acts of terrorism is already punishable by existing laws? Since the act provides for the creation of an Anti-terrorism Council to implement the law—a new body composed of senior government officials, including the executive secretary, national security advisor and the secretaries of justice, interior and local government, foreign affairs and national defense—apparently it is the government that will decide when it is being “coerced” by “unlawful demands”, as well as answer other questions raised by the law’s ambiguous definition of terrorism.

In addition, there is also concern about the powers that the act gives the police to detain for three days without a warrant those determined to be terrorists or members of terrorist organizations, wiretap their phones and other forms of communication, freeze their bank accounts and restrict their travel, including by placing them under house arrest when they have been granted bail. The law also mandates a heavy penalty of 40 years in prison without parole if convicted of terrorism or conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.

Its proponents point to the oversight that the law gives to the judiciary, its prohibitions against torture and extraordinary renditions to other countries where torture is practiced and the award of damages of 500,000 pesos (more than US$10,000) per day of detention for those arrested under its auspices but later acquitted, which must be paid by the police.While these provisions are laudable, the judicial system in the Philippines has not been able to prevent or solve hundreds of extrajudicial killings and disappearances since Arroyo became president in 2001, and torture is still widely practiced in the country although the government signed and ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1987. Thus, will they have any effect? The human rights record of the Philippines does not encourage a positive response. Both the Melo Commission appointed by the president last year and the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, have concluded that the majority of the killings have been the handiwork of the military. The law will only give more tools to the government to suppress dissent and target those “terrorists” such as church leaders and lay people, journalists, lawyers, students, peasants and trade unionists that have been the primary victims of killings. State-sponsored terrorism supplants efforts to avert terror against the state as the most likely outcome of its implementation.

Numbers are not the issue

How many extrajudicial killings are acceptable to the Philippine government? The question is important as the Philippine National Police’s Task Force Usig, which was specifically entrusted by the Arroyo administration to investigate and prevent these killings in May 2006, has spent a good deal of time and resources debating the number of victims.

One of the most recent examples of this fixation on numbers is an online report on the ABS-CBN Web site in which PNP Chief Superintendent Geary Barias, the current commander of Task Force Usig, said that the number of 839 victims from 2001— when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo become president—to March 2007 on a list compiled by Philippine human rights group KARAPATAN is inflated. The number on the list confirmed by the task force was at that time 115, with a further 207 yet to be verified.

Is the discrepancy in numbers as important as the fact that, at a minimum, more than a hundred Filipinos’ lives have been suddenly and violently ended in a pattern of violence? Is the discrepancy in numbers as important as the fact that no one has been convicted for these killings? Why is Task Force Usig so concerned about the discrepancy in the number of people killed and not the lack of any convictions? Why does it act more like a propaganda arm of the administration than an investigatory institution of the legal system?

Most, if not all, of those killed in the past six years, regardless of the number, have been advocates of the poor from different sectors of society—lawyers, journalists, pastors and lay church workers, students, peasants, trade unionists, opposition politicians—and critics of the government. The background of the victims raises further questions about the state of democracy in the Philippines; for in a country where the majority of the population is poor, why are those seeking to uphold the rights and interests of most citizens being killed?

Furthermore, Task Force Usig and the government have not stopped the killings. More victims are added to the list every week, and the fact that few suspects have been arrested, fewer still prosecuted and no one convicted has spawned a climate of fear. Instead of the perpetrators fearing punishment, the families of the victims, witnesses to the killings, activists and others fear being added to the list of those killed. Consequently, there is little incentive for them to pursue justice. Indeed, not one family member of a victim or activist chose to testify before the Melo Commission last year out of fear for their safety.

Barias, Task Force Usig’s commander, said in the ABS-CBN online article that the task force “conducted a validation (of KARAPATAN’s list) to clear our country before the international community”. However, if Barias, Task Force Usig and indeed, the Philippine government, are concerned about international image, debating the number of people extrajudicially killed will do little good. Only arrests and prosecutions will have this effect on the international community and, more importantly, on its own people. Stop the killings, and the criticism will stop too.

Meaningless elections, meaningless democracy

Within a span of several days in the middle of May 2007, two important elections were held involving the Philippines. During the first on May 14, citizens throughout the country cast their ballots for half of the senate all of the congress and more than 10,000 local officials. The second election on May 17 occurred thousands of miles away in New York, at the UN General Assembly, where the Philippines sought to be re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council.

In the latter, the Philippines received 179 votes from 192 members—the fourth-highest number of votes of any country in the world. With such a substantial vote of confidence from the international community for a seat on the United Nations’ human rights body, one would assume that the Philippines had a stellar human rights record. How then can it retain its seat on the council when even the United Nations’ own special expert has stated that the military is responsible for the majority of the extrajudicial killings in the country?

In electing a country with such a poor human rights record by such a large number of votes, the General Assembly has diluted the credibility of the 47-member Human Rights Council, which was established in 2006 in an attempt to make the UN more responsive to human rights violations around the world. Although human rights have ostensibly been elevated to the same status as security and development within the United Nations system, the vote on May 17 indicates that the international community is still not serious about its obligations in this field. It is also an insult to the victims of human rights abuses and their families

uman rights have ostensibly been elevated to the same status as security and development within the UN system, the international community is still

in the Philippines. Their suffering is apparently insignificant in the eyes of the international community; their desire for justice is apparently inconsequential to the world’s governments.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines itself 70 per cent of the country’s 45 million registered voters cast ballots. A good turnout by any standards; however, the election was allegedly marred by disenfranchisement, inflated lists of registered voters, vote buying, vote shaving and violence. The Commission on Elections acknowledged that as many as 100,000 voters in the south were unable to vote either because of the threat of violence or a lack of ballots, with some reportedly stolen. One election monitor there said that voters in the city of Marawi had told her that they had been able to vote more than once.

In the mayoral election for Lapu-Lapu City in the Visayas region in the middle of the country, one candidate claimed that at least 187,000 people voted, whereas there are only 148,870 registered voters. The local election officer said a week later that she was not sure when the election results would be transmitted to Manila as her four-member staff had not come to the office because they had received threats, as she had too.

In the municipality of Kalingalan Caluang on the southern island of Sulu a board of election inspector said that she witnessed a neighborhood chairman, his relatives and other inspectors fill out ballots in a private house at 4am on election day, and put their thumb prints on the ballots and in the voter registration book. Elsewhere in the same community, more than 300 people were prevented from voting because their precincts were transferred to another neighbourhood nine kilometers away on the night before the election. Even a vice mayoral candidate could not vote, and he was surprised to learn later that he had not received a single vote in his home village.

The most egregious transgressions involved electoral violence: more than a hundred candidates and their party supporters were killed and more than a hundred others were wounded from the start of the campaigning in January to the date of the poll. In spite of, Deputy Director General Avelino Razon Jr., former chief of Task Force Usig of the Philippine National Police, reportedly said, “Overall, the situation was generally peaceful, except for some untoward incidents.”

What kind of democracy does this corrupt and violent electoral exercise reflect? Ideally, human rights and democracy reinforce one another—the former providing favorable conditions for the latter to flourish; the latter ensuring that the former are respected. However, in the Philippines, with weekly extrajudicial killings and elections tainted by cheating and violence, both human rights and democracy are absent. In this environment, one can expect in the future more of the same, as well as other human rights violations and policies that continue to fail to serve the Philippines’ impoverished majority.


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