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PRESIDENT AQUINO took an important step toward justice in ordering prosecutors to withdraw the charges against the so-called Morong 43 because the evidence against them was illegally obtained. He should now take the additional step necessary to address impunity which is to order a criminal investigation.

The military response has been woefully inadequate. Ten months after the arrests, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has not properly investigated the detainees' numerous allegations of torture, ill-treatment and violations of due process. Rather than acting to show that it will not tolerate human rights abuses within its ranks, the AFP continues to contend that it has done nothing wrong. Philippine Army spokesman, Col. Antonio Parlade, rationalized the President's order by saying that the arrest "might have been impaired by a technicality."

AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Ricardo David should live up to his pledges on human rights and show that he takes allegations of abuse seriously by ordering an impartial internal investigation of the Morong 43's complaints, in addition to cooperating fully with criminal investigators and the Commission on Human Rights.

The 43 detainees, including 26 women, were arrested after soldiers and police stormed a farm house in Morong, Rizal, on Feb. 6. The military alleged that they are members of the communist New People's Army and that they were being trained in bomb-making techniques. Police charged them with illegal possession of firearms and explosives. These charges have been withdrawn by the Department of Justice.

What went wrong in the handling of the Morong 43? For starters, detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were not informed of the charges against them at the time of arrest. Soldiers blindfolded them and interrogated them off and on for 36 hours after taking them into custody. The arresting officers failed to inform the detainees that they had the right to remain silent and the right to counsel, rights protected by the Constitution. The military chose a lawyer to represent the five detainees who confessed to being rebels and who remain in military custody despite allegations of abuse.

Gunshots were fired while at least two blindfolded detainees were being interrogated, making them believe that their fellow detainees had been killed, a form of psychological torture. Another told how a soldier masqueraded as her lawyer during questioning, undermining the right to legal counsel. "I was still blindfolded and handcuffed [when a man came in and] claimed to be my lawyer," she said. He insisted I would have to tell the truth. He told me, ‘How could I help you if you would not tell me the truth?"'

Several detainees filed complaints with the Commission on Human Rights alleging various forms of ill-treatment. Four men said that soldiers punched them during interrogation. Two women said soldiers took off their clothing during questioning and a third said a soldier made sexual advances.

The alleged abuses would have been bad enough, but the military's response shows an institutional disregard for human rights at the highest levels. After nongovernmental organizations alleged that the detainees had been mistreated, the military awarded the two officers who led the arrests the Bronze Cross Medal and dismissed reports of ill-treatment as "plain propaganda... aimed to deceive the people." Today, despite the President's order, the military continues to contend it has done nothing wrong.

The military also challenged the authority of the CHR, denying on Feb. 7 CHR employees entry to the camp where the interrogations took place and refusing on March 8 to comply with the commission's order to present the detainees before it.

The military's agreement to let Human Rights Watch visit the five detainees it still held, in September, was a positive move. But the AFP still has a long way to go to right the wrongs generated by this case-and abuses by the military more generally.

David should live up to his pledges on human rights and show that he takes allegations of torture seriously. He should order the AFP inspector general and provost marshal to conduct prompt, impartial and transparent investigations of the allegations of abuse and publish their findings and recommendations within 90 days. Soldiers and officers credibly implicated in abuses should be relieved of duties pending completion of the investigations.

David should make sure that the AFP cooperates fully with the Commission on Human Rights at all times, particularly when the latter is exercising its power to inspect detention facilities and investigate rights abuses.

The Philippine government continues to face genuine internal security threats posed by the NPA and other armed groups. But continuing violence and abuses by rebel forces is never a justification for human rights violations by government forces. Rebel abuses should be investigated, and those responsible arrested and prosecuted for criminal offenses in accordance with Philippine and international law.

It is not too late for the AFP chief to make the Morong 43 case an example- not of unaccountable military abuse, but instead of a new seriousness in the military to address rights violations within its ranks.

Jessica Evans is a researcher in the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.

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