(New York) - Philippine presidential candidates should make ending impunity for extrajudicial killings central to their platforms ahead of the May 2010 general elections, Human Rights Watch said today.

Recent unsolved killings of regional and local candidates, party activists, and relatives of witnesses raise concerns that perpetrators are emboldened by the Arroyo administration's failure to hold those responsible to account. Human Rights Watch urged presidential candidates to tell the public the concrete steps they will take to stop killings, prosecute perpetrators, and protect witnesses during their first 100 days in office.

"Presidential candidates should explain how they will put an end to the scourge of killings that has so discredited the Arroyo government," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Bare condemnation of killings is not enough - the country needs to see a commitment to action."

There have been numerous apparently politically motivated killings in the lead up to the elections, scheduled for May 10, in which the authorities have been slow to respond.

On April 6, unidentified men fatally stabbed and shot Mohamadisa Simpal Sangki, 51, in front of the Cotabato City Plaza on the island of Mindanao. Mohamadisa was the brother of Ampatuan town mayor Zacaria Sangki and uncle of Ampatuan Vice Mayor Rasul Sangki. Both had testified against Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., the principal suspect in the November 2009 Maguindanao massacre, which left at least 57 dead, including relatives and supporters of a candidate for provincial governor and media personnel. At least two people connected to the Sangki family had earlier been shot and killed. Additionally, in February, the brother of a suspect-turned-witness, police officer Rainier Ebus, was shot multiple times in Datu Piang in Maguindanao and severely wounded.

These killings remain under investigation by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) and local police. A CIDG spokesperson confirmed that the Sangki family and families of other witnesses are experiencing harassment that is most likely related to the witnesses testifying in court. He told Human Rights Watch, "So far, no witnesses will give statements." Investigators are waiting for witnesses to come forward with signed statements, instead of proceeding with the investigations based on all available information.

"The authorities need to demonstrate to witnesses that they can and will protect them and their families," Pearson said. "Lacking signed statements is a sorry excuse for not investigating a criminal offense."

Local candidates and party activists have also been the targets of attacks. On March 24, unidentified armed men abducted two Bantay party-list campaigners, Juliana Noquera and Ronald Miranda, in Davao City. Their bodies were found, separately, in the days following. Davao City Police told Human Rights Watch that the investigation is ongoing.

According to the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), between January 10, when the official election period began, and April 14, it has received 71 reports of violent incidents targeting elected officials and candidates, involving 86 victims. Thirty-eight people have been killed. The CIDG public information officer, Felix Vargas, told Human Rights Watch that suspects include "guns for hire," political opponents, and members of paramilitary forces. To date, one suspect has been charged, eight suspects have been cleared, and investigations are continuing in the remainder of the cases. Vargas said that to date, no candidates for office have been interviewed during investigations as it is difficult to link them to the crime.

During the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, hundreds of political party members, human rights activists, journalists, and outspoken clergy have been killed or forcibly disappeared in apparently politically motivated attacks. Human Rights Watch investigations into the so-called Davao Death Squads have revealed the involvement over several years of local police officers and officials in killing alleged petty criminals, drug dealers, gang members, and street children in Davao city.

Despite a reduction in killings since 2007, attributed to international and local pressure, the killings continue. While Arroyo has announced numerous initiatives to address those abuses, there has been no real progress in bringing those responsible to justice, Human Rights Watch said. Reforms have largely been symbolic while genuine structural reforms recommended by United Nations bodies, human rights organizations, and even the government's own Melo Commission have been ignored.

Of the hundreds of killings and enforced disappearances of leftist activists since 2001, Human Rights Watch knows of only six cases that have been successfully prosecuted, resulting in the conviction of 11 suspects. Although the military has been implicated in many of the crimes, none of those convicted were active military personnel at the time of the killing.

A multi-agency task force that includes the Commission on Human Rights, police, army, and other government agencies has been investigating death squad killings in Davao City since June 2009. But Human Rights Watch found that the task force has faced a series of unnecessary judicial delays and obstacles in its investigations. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any successful prosecutions of those responsible for death squad killings.

Human Rights Watch urged presidential candidates to provide a comprehensive action plan to end impunity for extrajudicial and death squad killings and for enforced disappearances. Only one presidential candidate has promised to implement the recommendations of Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Executions.

Human Rights Watch said that presidential candidates should explain what measures they will take to enable witnesses to testify safely, for example by using videotaped testimony, closed courtrooms, or depositions, and to create mechanisms for witnesses to and transfer their places of residence, including to other provinces, prior to and if necessary after trial. Candidates should also support open hotlines to receive anonymous information on abuses perpetrated by local government officials, security forces, and state-backed militia members.

"Even continued killings have not prompted presidential candidates to propose urgently needed reforms," Pearson said. "This election period should be an important moment to get the Philippines back on track toward respecting basic rights."