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Letter to President Aquino Regarding Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines

President Benigno S. Aquino III
Malacañang Palace
J.P. Laurel St.
San Miguel
Manila, NCR
1005 Philippines
Facsimile: +63 2 735 8005

Re: Combating Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines

Dear President Aquino,

Congratulations on your inauguration as the 15th president of the Republic of the Philippines. Human Rights Watch would like to say palarin ka sana, good luck in carrying out your duties as president.

Human Rights Watch looks forward to working with you to realize the commitments to protecting and promoting human rights that you articulated during your presidential campaign and inaugural address. In your campaign, you rightly emphasized the importance of justice and ending extrajudicial killings, and promised to abolish so-called private armies. In your address on June 30, you undertook to "strengthen the armed forces and the police, not to serve the interests of those who want to wield power with impunity, but to give added protection for ordinary folk." And you publicly instructed your new justice secretary, Leila de Lima, to "begin the process of providing true and complete justice for all." We encourage you to move swiftly with clear and effective policies to realize these commitments.

The Philippine security forces and their proxies have in the past decade killed hundreds of left-wing activists and political party members, outspoken clergy, and human rights advocates, with almost complete impunity. Powerful local politicians have continued to eliminate their opponents and prying journalists without penalty. And government-linked "death squads" operating in Davao City and elsewhere continue to target suspected petty criminals and other marginalized residents. As you know, continuing violence and abuses by the communist New People's Army and Islamist armed groups, while itself criminal and deplorable, is never justification for human rights violations by government forces. We urge you and your government to give high priority to address each of the above issues.

To this end, we write to recommend six specific steps that you should take to combat extrajudicial killings and hold those responsible to account, eliminate abusive state-backed militias, and abolish all "death squads." As one who has personally suffered as a result of a government-instigated killing, you more than most would recognize that ending such killings would be an important and lasting legacy of your administration.

Impunity for extrajudicial killings

Successive Philippine governments failed to bring an end to extrajudicial killings. While the number of extrajudicial killings has dropped since 2007, killings continue. Since you were proclaimed president on June 9, three journalists and a key witness to the November 23, 2009 Maguindanao massacre have been killed. One week into your presidency, a journalist and a 61-year-old leftist activist have been killed, and the former lawyer and ally of a witness who testified in the Maguindanao massacre trial has survived a shooting attack.

Perpetrators of extrajudicial killings have benefited from the enduring climate of impunity in the Philippines. Out of hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances since 2001, when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power, there have been only six successfully prosecuted cases resulting in the conviction of 11 defendants. To date, there has not been a single conviction of an active member of the military. In some cases, such as the killing of Pastor Andy Pawikan and the "disappearance" of Karen Empeno and Sheryl Cadapan, the killing was not investigated and perpetrators were not prosecuted despite independent eyewitness accounts of military involvement. In others, such as the March 2005 killing of journalist Marlene Esperat, some alleged civilian perpetrators have been prosecuted, while equally implicated military officers have not been. No senior military officers have been convicted either for direct involvement in these violations or as a matter of command responsibility.

Until these killings and enforced disappearances are effectively, impartially, and transparently investigated, perpetrators are held fully accountable, and the military genuinely recognizes its subordination to civilian authority, an ultimate return to high levels of extrajudicial killings seems inevitable. The experience of the Philippines in the 1990s, when extrajudicial killings also dropped significantly and then returned with a vengeance, serves as a warning.

We urge you not to follow in the footsteps of the Arroyo government, which created an appearance of combating abuses by generating numerous commissions and taskforces, while ignoring genuine structural reforms recommended by United Nations bodies, human rights organizations, and the government's own Melo Commission. You and your government should immediately initiate and implement the comprehensive reforms needed.

1.    Investigate police and military personnel implicated in killings

Human Rights Watch has found that police investigators in alleged extrajudicial killing cases often adopt a posture of irresponsible passivity, doing nothing themselves to investigate these crimes and placing the onus entirely on victims' families, many of whom have no idea who murdered their loved one. Police investigators routinely ignore anonymous leads, despite the fear of retaliation that compels witnesses to resort to anonymity.

Instead, investigators have told Human Rights Watch that they will not launch an investigation until someone is brave enough to risk his or her life by delivering a signed statement. Even when victims have allegedly been abducted by security forces, the police typically conduct only a perfunctory search. The Arroyo government made much of the human rights training that is given to the police but the lessons learned in the classroom are quickly unlearned when police officers see that no one is held accountable for such lackluster investigations of human rights abuses.

In your first 60 days in office, you should:

  • Order the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to investigate police and military personal, particularly at the command level, who have been implicated in killings and enforced disappearances.
  • Issue an executive order directing police and NBI investigators to vigorously pursue crimes allegedly committed by government officials and police officers or themselves be subject to disciplinary measures for insubordination or a criminal investigation for obstruction of justice or graft and corruption.
  • Publicly order the chief of the Philippine National Police to open hotlines or comparable lines of communication to receive anonymous information on extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses.

2.   Take immediate steps to protect witnesses

Witnesses make or break a case in the Philippines, where eyewitness testimony is often the only evidence that links a suspect to a crime. Yet, in a country where witnesses in political cases are often at great personal risk, the government does little to protect them or their family members. The June 14, 2010 murder of a key witness in the Maguindanao massacre, whose pleas to the government for protection were ignored, was only the latest example of the consequences of this policy of neglect.

The United Nations special envoy on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, recommended in 2007 that the government ensure protection for persons who testify in killings for as long as they are at risk, and that they be provided housing and other assistance to ensure their security and well-being. Human Rights Watch made similar recommendations in its 2007 and 2009 reports about extrajudicial killings. None of these recommendations has been implemented. Disturbingly, Philippine government officials have frequently explained the reason for so few prosecutions of extrajudicial killings on the grounds that witnesses do not come forward to testify.

In your first 60 days in office, you should:

  • Order the CIDG and the NBI to vigorously investigate acts of witness intimidation and killing and issue public findings on the outcome of such investigations. Make the prosecution of perpetrators of violence against witnesses a priority.
  • Order the justice secretary and national police chief to take all necessary measures to protect the physical safety of witnesses to serious crimes and their family members, including relocation where necessary.

In your first 100 days in office, you should:

  • Create an independent, accessible, and properly funded witness protection program. The witness protection program should be safeguarded by an agency other than the Department of Justice or the Philippine National Police and should provide protection from witnesses from the onset of a police investigation until long after the trial, if necessary.
  • Order the justice secretary to institute measures for witnesses to offer testimonies safely, while protecting the rights of defendants, for example by using video-conferenced testimonies, closed courtrooms, or depositions.
  • Introduce a priority bill in Congress to increase significantly the penalties for intimidating or assaulting a witness and expanding the offense to include offenses against relatives. Currently, intimidating a witness incurs a fine of not more than 3,000 pesos (US$65) or imprisonment of six months to one year, or both.

3.    Legislate to prevent enforced disappearances

In your first 100 days in office, you should:

  • Introduce a priority bill in Congress to prohibit and protect against enforced disappearances.
  • Urge the Senate to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and take immediate steps to implement.

State-backed militias

Militia forces such as CAFGUs (Civilian Armed Force Auxiliary Units), Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVOs), and Police Auxiliary Units have been used to fight insurgencies since at least the 1980s.

Under the Arroyo administration, these forces were strengthened despite their long history of committing serious human rights violations. The government extended the ambit of Special CAFGUs beyond commercial enterprises to allow local government units to contract with the military for their use. It also armed members of CVOs and Police Auxiliary Units, while increasing the CAFGU membership.

In numerous provinces, ruling families use militia forces and local police as their private armies. By recruiting, arming, and paying members of these various militias, often with national government support, local officials ensure their continued rule, eliminate political opponents, and engage in corruption. In addition, local officials frequently use their authority under Philippine law to appoint and dismiss police chiefs to improperly control the police for personal or other unlawful purposes. The most egregious atrocity allegedly committed by a ruling family in recent years, the November 23, 2009 Maguindanao massacre, was carried out by a private army consisting of government-endorsed CVO, Special CAFGU, and Police Auxiliary Unit members, as well as police officers and soldiers. Local government officials are also involved in selecting the police chief for their jurisdiction, infringing police independence.

The proliferation of military weaponry throughout the country strengthens the officials behind the private armies. Following the Maguindanao massacre, police investigators recovered numerous military weapons from the homes of prime suspects Andal Ampatuan, Sr. and Jr., including anti-tank weapons, mortar bombs, machineguns, sniper and assault rifles, automatic pistols, and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition. Some of these weapons displayed Department of National Defense markings.

We recognize that the Philippines continues to face genuine internal security threats. However, Philippine history shows that seeking to replace professional armed forces and police with armed yet untrained or barely trained civilians is dangerous and counterproductive.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution (article XVIII, section 24) provides that private armies are to be dismantled. Paramilitary forces must be authorized and adequately trained, a standard by which many militia units fall short. Yet successive Philippine governments have failed to disable these abusive forces, systemically disarm them, or hold members and leaders accountable for serious abuses. We hope that this will change under the Aquino administration.

4.   Abolish militia forces

In your first 60 days in office you should:

  • Revoke Executive Order 546, which has been interpreted by local governments and police as providing authority to arm private armies.

In your first 100 days in office you should:

  • Issue an executive order banning militias. Order the Philippine National Police to disarm and disband the Civilian Volunteer Organizations and the Police Auxiliary Units.
  • Order the Armed Forces of the Philippines to immediately disband the Special CAFGUs and end their private funding.
  • Order the Armed Forces of the Philippines to prepare a time-bound timetable for the disarming and staged disbanding of CAFGUs within six months.
  • Instruct the Secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development to work with nongovernmental organizations and appropriate government agencies to afford persons who had been recruited for militias appropriate assistance for physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration, including alternative employment.

5.    Institute tougher controls on local government procurement of weapons

In your first 60 days in office, you should:

  • Issue an executive order requiring all government officials to report firearms acquired for professional or personal use.
  • Order the Commission on Audit to investigate whether the Peace and Order fund or other public monies have been used to fund private armies.

In your first 100 days in office you should:

  • Submit a priority bill to Congress to prevent local government officials from using the selection or dismissal of police chiefs in their jurisdiction for private purposes, require that reasons be provided for the selection, and mandate local government officials to disclose any relationship or affiliation with proposed candidates.

"Death squads"

So-called death squads operating in Davao City, General Santos City, Digos City, Tagum City, and Cebu City target mostly poor and marginalized victims, such as alleged petty criminals, drug dealers, gang members, and street children. Based on extensive interviews, including with nine people with insider knowledge of the "Davao Death Squad," Human Rights Watch concluded that police officers and local government officials were involved or complicit in the decade-long killing spree in Davao City that has claimed more than 900 lives.

The outgoing, long-time mayor and now vice-mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte, has not condemned or attempted to prevent these killings. Rather, his public comments, portraying an image of being tough on crime at all costs, suggest his support for the Davao Death Squad. Duterte's daughter, incoming Mayor Sara Duterte, who was endorsed by your Liberal party during the election campaign, has denied the existence of a death squad in Davao City. On April 22, she reportedly said, "There has never been any official report on the existence of DDS [Davao Death Squad]." Hours after she was sworn in on June 23, she said that Davao City will remain a "dangerous place" for criminals. She said, "City Hall will continue to deal with criminals the way they were dealt with before." Human Rights Watch is concerned that without a strong message from Malacañang condemning anti-crime policies that tolerate the targeted killing of criminal suspects and ordering the investigation of such policies and killings, death squads will be emboldened in their unlawful operations.

Since April 2009, various government institutions have announced that they would investigate the death squads. The National Commission on Human Rights conducted public hearings, and then-Chairperson Leila de Lima promised to investigate the killings "for as long as it takes." The Commission formed an inter-agency task force that will look into the Davao Death Squad. National Police Chief Jesus Verzosa instructed local police chiefs to pursue cases against those implicated in the killings. In an order dated January 11, 2010, but not received by Verzosa until April 16, the Office of the Ombudsman ordered the preventative suspension of 26 police officers for their failure to stop unsolved killings allegedly linked to death squad operations during their service as station commanders. However, to date, no charges have been filed and the Commission on Human Rights has not published its report into Davao Death Squad operations.

6.   Dismantle "death squads" and investigate government involvement

In your first 60 days in office you should:

  • Publicly denounce extrajudicial killings and local anti-crime campaigns that promote or encourage the unlawful use of force, starting in Davao City, and pledge that government officials who are found to be involved or complicit in such killings shall be fully prosecuted.
  • Order the NBI to commence thorough investigations into alleged death squad killings in Davao City, General Santos City, Digos City, and Tagum City. National-level investigators should be used, and the role of local police and other authorities in such crimes should be a particular focus.
  • Order the Commission on Audit to investigate whether public monies have been used directly or indirectly for death squad activities in the aforementioned cities.

We hope to work with your administration constructively to address these serious problems. We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss these issues in more detail.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director


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