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(New York) - Courts in Davao City and Manila should cooperate fully with investigations into death squad killings, in line with recent recommendations by a UN body, instead of undermining efforts to bring killers to justice, Human Rights Watch said today.

Judges have delayed judicial proceedings and denied search warrants, while those leading the investigation have been required to respond to criminal charges. A multi-agency task force that includes the Commission on Human Rights, police, army, and other government agencies has taken evidence in private and searched alleged grave sites, but harassment and judicial delays have hindered efforts to search on land belonging to a former police officer.

"Local authorities and powers are doing their best to stymie investigations into the Davao Death Squad, as the task force looks more closely at local officials' involvement," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "They're using intimidation tactics and bureaucratic delays to frustrate justice."

Human Rights Watch called on the country's acting justice secretary, Agnes Devanadera, to publicly condemn the death squad killings and remind judges to act independently and efficiently to aid investigations.

Death squads operating in Davao City have killed more than 926 people, mostly poor and marginalized victims, such as alleged petty criminals, drug dealers, gang members, and street children. In April, Human Rights Watch released a report that concluded that police officers and local officials were involved or complicit in the Davao City killings. As investigation efforts have been delayed, there have been more killings. State Prosecutor Antonio Arellano reported 22 victims of purported death-squad killings in August and September 2009.

On October 2, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child urged the Philippines to take "all necessary measures to prevent extrajudicial killings of children and to thoroughly investigate all alleged cases of killings and bring the perpetrators to justice." This followed the committee's review of the Philippines' compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child on September 15.

The national Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has spearheaded efforts to investigate the death squads, holding three public hearings in Davao since March. On June 17, the commission set up a multi-agency task force, which it chairs, consisting of the Philippines National Police, the National Bureau of Investigation, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, the Departments of Social Welfare and Development, Health, Justice, and National Defense, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Police from the task force obtained a search warrant on July 3 for a firing range in Davao City, based on the sworn statement of a former self-confessed death squad member. The firing range is on land belonging to a former police officer. Police applied to a Manila court for the warrant, alleging that the respondents have connections and influence with court personnel in Davao. On July 9, the property owner filed an urgent motion to quash the search order, which remains before the court, awaiting resolution.

A special investigation unit from the national police conducted the search from July 5 to 11. A July 12 medico-legal officer's report stated that they had found the remains of at least three individuals. The search continued even though lawyers representing the property owner went to the site on July 6, demanding that the search team stop digging and threatening them with criminal prosecution.

According to media reports and interviews with commission members, on July 6, the search team identified what appeared to be a human bone in an adjacent area of the former police officer's property not covered by the initial search warrant. The team secured the area while the task force applied for a new search warrant in a Davao court.

That court denied the application on July 7, on grounds of lack of sufficient evidence, after the matter was passed through four judges. According to a CHR news release, Judge Ridgway M. Tanjili, who finally denied the application, asked the police during proceedings, "alam nyo ba ginagawa nyo?" - "do you know what you're doing?" The CHR interpreted the question as a reference to the possible grave consequences of searching these areas and the ongoing investigation into the death squad.

The police then applied to a Manila court, which issued the warrant for the adjacent area on July 10. In searching that area, the special investigation unit recovered human remains showing gunshot injuries to the skull, ammunition of various sizes and caliber, and three sets of license plates. But almost two weeks later, the Manila court canceled the warrant at a hearing on the application of the property owner, meaning the remains and items discovered cannot be used as evidence. The court failed to give the police three days' notice of the hearing as required by law, and did not give reasons for its decision. On August 14, the police asked the court to reconsider its decision, but it has not made its decision.

"Judges are clearly nervous about matters relating to the Davao Death Squad," said Pearson. "In a country where judges themselves have been victims of extrajudicial killings, this is not surprising, but the government needs to protect judges and ensure that they can act without fear or favor."

The former police officer also filed a contempt case against the commission's chairperson, Leila de Lima, in the Davao Regional Trial Court alleging that she made "caustic, insulting, and baseless accusations" in a July 9 statement after the Davao court refused to issue the second search warrant. In the statement, de Lima was quoted as saying, "Are some judges so afraid of the dark forces behind the DDS [Davao Death Squad] that they would not use the might of the bench to fight for what is right? Inaction makes them accessories to the culture of impunity."

In addition, de Lima, several police officers of the special investigation unit, and a Davao City member of the national Congress, Speaker Prospero Nograles, were subpoenaed on July 14, to respond to a complaint of allegedly removing a detainee from the District Jail.

The prisoner complained that on the morning of July 6, police officers, acting under the direction of de Lima and Nograles, had taken him from the jail, bribed and intimidated him, and tried to get information from him. Police acknowledge that they questioned him, but say they did so according to standard procedures. De Lima categorically denies the accusation, saying she had no knowledge of the incident until it was reported in the media.

"Justice Secretary Devanadera needs to tell prosecutors and judges that intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders is not acceptable under any circumstances and to stop undermining investigations into the death squad," Pearson said.

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