MANILA (Mindanao Examiner / 28 Jun) – A U.S.-based human rights group accused the Philippine military of engaging in a “dirty war” in a campaign to silent political activists in the country.
In an 84-page report released on Thursday and titled, “Scared Silent: Impunity for Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines,” the Human Rights Watch said Manila should aggressively prosecute members of the security forces responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial executions in recent years.
Filipino militant groups said more than 800 people had been kidnapped and murdered since President Gloria Arroyo rose to power in 2001. Most of the killings, they said, pointed to the military as the culprit.
The report, based on more than 100 interviews, details the involvement of government security forces in the murder or “disappearance” of members of leftist political parties and nongovernmental organizations, journalists, outspoken clergy, anti-mining activists, and agricultural reform activists.
To date there have been no successful prosecutions of any member of the armed forces implicated in recent extrajudicial killings, the Human Rights Watch in New York said. “There is strong evidence of a ‘dirty war’ by the armed forces against left-leaning activists and journalists,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The failure to prosecute soldiers or police suspected in these killings shifts the spotlight of responsibility to the highest levels of the government.”
While abuses have been common in the decades-long armed conflict between the government and the communist New People’s Army (NPA), unlawful killings appeared to shift into a higher gear in February 2006, after President Arroyo accused leftist political parties of allying themselves with military coup plotters.
In June 2006, Arroyo declared a new strategy of an “all-out war” to eliminate the NPA, which may have sent a signal to the military that abuses would be tolerated.
The NPA also continues to commit human rights abuses, including kidnapping and unlawful killings, which Human Rights Watch also condemned. But such abuses by insurgents do not justify the military or the government committing further human rights violations through extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of any person, including members of political groups and civil society organizations that are sympathetic to the insurgents’ cause.
Most of the victims of the political killings documented by Human Rights Watch were members of legal political parties or organizations that the military claims are allied with the communist movement.
None of the incidents investigated by Human Rights Watch involved anyone who was participating in an armed encounter with the military or was otherwise involved in NPA military operations. Each victim appears to have been individually targeted for killing.
Three motorcycle-riding gunmen shot and killed Sotero Llamas, the former Bicol region commander of the NPA, while he was riding in his car on the morning of May 29, 2006, through his home town of Tabaco City in Albay province.
Llamas, who had been imprisoned in 1995 for his membership in the NPA, was released in 1996, became a consultant to the peace process, and then became a founding member of the political party Bayan Muna.
The NPA said government soldiers assassinated Llamas.
In February 2006, Llamas was one of the 51 people whom the police accused of rebellion and insurrection and being involved in the conspiracy to overthrow the Arroyo administration.
A judge dismissed the charges, but state prosecutors subsequently re-filed the case, which was still pending at the time of his death.
Three eyewitnesses currently in hiding told Human Rights Watch of the involvement of soldiers in the death of Pastor Andy Pawikan, a member of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, on May 21, 2006. Pawikan, his wife, his 7-month-old daughter and three other women were walking home from church when they were stopped by a group of about 20 soldiers.
The women, including Pawikan’s wife, were allowed to proceed but the soldiers detained Pawikan, who was carrying the baby. After about 30 minutes, those who had just been with Pawikan heard “many” shots. They were too afraid to investigate.
After some time a group of soldiers came and returned the child to Pawikan’s mother-in-law.
The baby was covered in blood but otherwise uninjured. The next day soldiers from the locally based 48th Infantry Battalion told the villagers Pawikan had fought the soldiers and they had no choice but to shoot him.
Human Rights Watch also found that the Philippines government is consistently failing in its obligations under international human rights law to hold accountable perpetrators of politically motivated killings, and thus denying victims’ families justice.
One apparent roadblock to prosecutions is the seeming unwillingness of senior military officials to even recognize that superior commanders may be legally responsible for acts of their subordinates as a matter of command responsibility. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff General Hermogenes Esperon Jr. told the media, “Criminal acts only involve the individual.”
In response to growing international pressure, in August 2006 President Arroyo created a special police body, Task Force Usig, which she charged with solving 10 cases in 10 weeks. At the end of its mandate the Task Force claimed that 21 cases were “solved” by filing cases in court against identified suspects, all of them members of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines or the NPA.
Only 12 suspects involved in these incidents were actually in police custody. In August 2006, President Arroyo also created the Melo Commission to further probe the killings of media workers and left-wing activists since 2001.
The commission’s report, which was only made public under pressure from United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Philip Alston, failed to provide any new information or analysis on the cases.
At the commission’s hearings, army and police officials were not challenged when they advanced distorted understandings of command responsibility, and were instead indulged in lengthy digressions on the importance of neutralizing the NPA threat. The Melo Commission’s mandate expires on June 30, 2007. Human Rights Watch said that while the government claims that it is doing all it can to address the abuses, it has taken few concrete steps to end the killings or prosecute perpetrators.
A Philippine military spokesman, Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro, has accused the Human Rights Watch of not getting the side of the Armed Forces so it can answer all allegations against its members.
“We categorically deny allegations that there is a dirty war being waged by the Armed Forces, particularly against the leftist groups. It is an unfair reporting because we have been collaborating with any agency conducting investigation relative to extrajudicial killings. We are transparent as we can be,” Bacarro said.
He said all allegations of extra-judicial killings blamed to the military were old issue.
Human Rights Watch is the largest human rights organization based in the United States. Its researchers conduct fact-finding investigations into human rights abuses in all regions of the world and then publishes those findings in dozens of books and reports every year, generating extensive coverage in local and international media. (Juan Magtanggol and Juley Reyes)