(Zamboanga City) – Philippines security forces and Muslim rebels have committed serious abuses during fighting in the southern city of Zamboanga. After taking over five coastal villages on September 9, 2013, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) took dozens of residents hostage, though many have since been released. The Philippine military and police have allegedly tortured or otherwise mistreated suspected rebels in custody.
In one incident, rebels used Christian hostages as human shields, whom the Philippine government forces attacked, apparently indiscriminately, Human Rights Watch said.
“A confrontation in Zamboanga in which the rebels hid behind hostages and the army fired on them shows how ugly this fighting became,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Both sides need to do all they can to prevent further loss of civilian life.”
The government responded to the rebel intrusion by sending in thousands of troops, blocking off the villages, and “clearing” most areas of rebel elements, officials said. More than 112,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting as of September 18, according to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
Human Rights Watch has interviewed villagers held hostage, MNLF rebel suspects, relatives of victims, police officials, and officials from the Commission on Human Rights.
Allegations of Mistreatment
On September 18, Philippine authorities announced that rebellion charges were being prepared against 70 of the 93 suspected members of the MNLF in custody. A dozen detainees who spoke to Human Rights Watch alleged mistreatment in custody by the police or military.
Human Rights Watch interviewed six suspected MNLF rebels jailed at the Zamboanga Central Police Office who alleged that they had been mistreated. Five said police or military agents interrogated them by putting a plastic bag over their head, suffocating them. They said they were also punched and kicked by their interrogators. The suspects said their interrogators sought to force them to confess to being MNLF members. One told Human Rights Watch he admitted as much because he “couldn’t stand the pain anymore.” An elderly detainee alleged that his interrogators blindfolded him and dunked his head into a toilet bowl twice. Another said alcohol was poured into his nose to get him to confess.
At the Philippine National Police’s Camp Batalla in Zamboanga City, three men and two boys aged 14 and 17 were handcuffed to each other since September 12. They were arrested after police found a gun on one of the adults in the group. The five said they knew each other as bottled water vendors at the city port, but denied being members of the MNLF. Police officials said on September 18 that the five were no longer suspects and would soon be released.
Police officials told Human Rights Watch that they had arrested dozens of people since the fighting erupted but had since released most of them. One of those arrested was a man with a mental disability who was accused of being an MNLF rebel – the police at first refused to release him or permit his family to see him, but eventually freed him without charge.
Under Philippine law, authorities must charge criminal suspects within 36 hours or release them. Most of the rebel suspects in custody had not been charged after up to 10 days in cramped jails. Interior Secretary Mar Roxas told a media briefing on September 18 that charges had not been brought because the offices of the Department of Justice in Zamboanga City have been closed since the crisis began.
“The government has a responsibility to ensure that everyone taken into custody, including suspected rebels, are treated humanely,” Adams said. “Closing down the Justice Department offices is no excuse for seeing that those arrested are properly charged or released.”
Rebel Hostages and “Human Shields”
The MNLF rebels that took over the coastal villages at one time held perhaps hundreds of residents hostage in different locations and used them as human shields to deter Philippine army attacks, Human Rights Watch said.
Michelle Candido, 27, told Human Rights Watch that she, her husband George, and son Jeomi, 2, were inside their home on Lustre Street in Zamboanga City on the morning of Monday, September 9, when they heard gunshots. “We didn’t get out of the house until my uncle told me moments later that we are evacuating,” Candido told Human Rights Watch. They sought refuge at a Christian church down the street but were intercepted by the rebels. The rebels herded them into the church where they were joined by more than 50 other residents, six of them Michelle’s relatives. All were Christians as the rebels had freed those who were Muslim.
“They did not hurt us but they warned us that if we tried to escape, they would shoot us,” Candido said. At 10 p.m. that night, the hostages, including many children, were moved to a daycare center where they were fed snack food and soft drinks.
Two days later, on September 11, the rebels tied up the hostages and directed them to move to the center of the street outside. For two days, amidst sporadic sniper and automatic weapon fire in their area, from 10 a.m. until evening, the hostages would stand outside under the sun. They would shout “Ceasefire!” every time a helicopter passed by or if they saw soldiers aiming their rifles at them, to avoid being attacked.
On September 13, Candido said she heard the rebels talking about a two-hour ceasefire that was to last between 10 a.m. and noon. The rebels told the hostages that they would soon be released. “They wanted us to escort them and then they will leave us,” Candido said.
At around 10:30 a.m. the hostages were ordered out into the street with rebels armed with rifles taking cover behind them, using them as human shields. Candido said that as soon as they were out, gunfire erupted between the military and the rebels. “The shots came from afar,” she said. “It’s as if they didn’t care about the hostages.” One of the hostages was struck by gunfire and killed.
The hostages and the rebels tried to seek cover. For several hours, until 4 p.m., the shooting continued, stopping intermittently, Candido said. She said a helicopter dropped confetti in which the pieces were in the shape of doves. “We were happy because a dove means peace,” she said. “It would soon be over.”
Three military vehicles, which Candido described as tanks, but likely armored personnel carriers that were widely used in this conflict, then arrived:
We got up and shouted “Ceasefire!” But the tanks started shooting at us. One old man was hit and died. One man in a yellow shirt died, too. The firing went on and on until we had no choice but jump into the sewer, whose cover had been removed by the rebels so they can turn it into a shield.
“The shooting was relentless,” said Monica Limen, a 50-year-old housewife who was among the hostages with two of her children. Gunfire struck her in the head while her daughter Nerica, 7, sustained a small wound in her right foot. Limen later found out that her son Rubin, 20, was killed. “We have not found his body yet,” she told Human Rights Watch at her hospital bed.
Another hostage, Lemuel Agucita, 17, described how terrified he was when the shooting started. “It was like a massacre,” he said. “The shooting just went on and on. We dropped to the ground, some jumped into the sewer.”
While in the sewer, Michelle and her husband tried to keep their son Jeomi’s chin and head above the sewage but she said even she could not help but swallow some. The shooting continued and suddenly there was a huge explosion right above the sewer. “We must have lost consciousness for a moment,” Michelle said. When she came to, she felt Jeomi’s head and it was bloodied, but he was alive. Her right pinkie finger had been hit. Her husband was unharmed.
Once the shooting stopped, the rebels told the hostages to return to the daycare center, where Michelle administered first aid to her son. They stayed in the daycare center until the next day, fearful of being shot if they went outside. The next day, the rebels let Michelle and her child go, but not her husband. Joemi died at the hospital 24 hours later and George was among those released on September 17.
In the fighting since September 9, both state security forces and the MNLF have acted in violation of international law. The “taking of hostages” and “cruel treatment” by all parties to a conflict is specifically prohibited by international treaty law. Customary international law also prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians, attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, and attacks in which the anticipated harm to civilians is greater than the expected military gain. Parties must take all feasible steps to protect civilians and avoid deploying in densely populated areas. The use of “human shields” – deliberately using non-combatants to deter an attack – is a serious violation. However, violations by one side never justify violations by the other. Thus, the holding of hostages and use of human shields by the MNLF does not permit the Philippine army to conduct attacks in disregard of the civilians who have been placed at risk.
International law prohibits torture and other ill-treatment of persons in custody. Individuals apprehended by the government should be promptly brought before a judge and charged with a credible criminal offense or released. The government has an obligation to investigate those responsible for the mistreatment of persons in custody and discipline or prosecute them as appropriate.
“When the smoke finally clears in Zamboanga, the government will need to investigate what happened, including holding accountable members of the military and police who committed abuses,” Adams said.