(New York) - The Philippine government should aggressively prosecute members of the security forces responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial executions in recent years, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.
The 84-page report, “Scared Silent: Impunity for Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines,” 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.
“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 Gloria Macapagal 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. 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.”
The Philippine national police also frequently labels cases “solved” when a suspect has been identified and charges have been filed before the prosecutor or the court, even if the evidence and allegations are so uncertain as to raise significant doubts that a viable case could ever be pursued. The alleged perpetrator is very rarely in custody and in many cases is not even capable of being apprehended. Families told Human Rights Watch that they received little or no information from the police about the state of investigations, and that the police showed almost no concern as to whether the victim’s family still has unanswered questions or concerns. One widow said: “We’ve had no contact [with the police] since the killing .... That’s why we don’t trust them. Because it’s been almost two months, and the investigation doesn’t seem resolved.”
“The armed forces serve the civilian authority, but the government isn’t exercising that authority when it matters most – in protecting civilians,” said Richardson. “The victims and their families deserve better from their government.”
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 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 abuses, it has taken few concrete steps to end the killings or prosecute perpetrators. On paper, the Philippines has a witness protection scheme, special courts to investigate political killings, and a variety of government taskforces and commissions investigating extrajudicial executions, but the government is failing to implement these measures in a credible or convincing manner. This generates widespread fear, particularly in affected rural communities, of further military abuses. Witnesses and family members of victims are afraid to cooperate with police for fear of becoming targets of reprisal.
Human Rights Watch called on the Philippine government to immediately issue an executive order to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippines National Police reiterating the prohibition on the extrajudicial killing of any person. In addition, Human Rights Watch has urged the United States to consider suspending military aid to the Philippines until members of the military suspected of involvement in murders have been prosecuted.
“Actions speak louder than words, and the only real proof of the government’s commitment to end these killings will be when the perpetrators are finally held to account in a court of law,” said Richardson. “Until the Arroyo administration, the army and police act on their obligations to investigate crimes and prosecute the perpetrators, even when they are members of the security forces, people will continue to get away with murder in the Philippines.”
Selected statements from “Scared Silent: Impunity for Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines”:
“At the moment I’m receiving texts saying someone will follow members of the family. I don’t know if it’s a threat or a warning. He says in some of the texts that he knows who killed my father and that I should go talk to him. I don’t know who he is. I just have his number… [I’ve received around] twenty. Saying things like ‘Don’t investigate or we’ll get your family.’”
– Marilyn Llamas, September 21, 2006
“[One witness] has already disappeared. The other witnesses are afraid of the situation here. They are afraid that the perpetrators will begin to kill them also, because they were [warned] by the perpetrators that they will come back and kill them if they talk about the incident ... I am afraid that their families will also be killed if they stand up regarding the incident .... If I push the case I’m afraid of what might happen to [me and my family]. So I’m not quite sure if I’ll pursue the case or not.”
– Maria Balani (not her real name), date withheld, 2006
“After the internment of my sister, the police investigators invited me to come talk to them ... Okay, I went. They asked me for my statement, so I gave them the same statement I’m giving you now. But I noticed that the investigator did not write down my statement ... They did nothing.”
– Human Rights Watch interview with Maria Fabicon (not her real name), date withheld, 2006