Scared Silent: Impunity for Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines

The New York-based Human Rights Watch today issued its 88-page report “Scared Silent: Impunity for Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines” that condemned the Arroyo government and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) over the continuing political slays.

This is a well-written, well-researched report. The Inquirer published a frontpage article about it.

Here is the report’s summary:

Our hopes and prayers [are] for light and justice for our son… Behind the pains that hurt the deep wound in our hearts we truly love him and we miss a great and unique man.

—Mother of shooting victim, Legazpi City, September, 2006

Right now, there is this culture of impunity covering executive officials, that they can do whatever they want and they will not be held accountable.

—Senator Rodolfo Biazon, Chair of Committee on National Defense and Security, Manila, September, 2006

It’s a complete breakdown of the rule of law. Civilian rule has been replaced by military rule. The courts don’t function. The prosecutors don’t function. The investigative agencies don’t function. Lawyers are threatened.

—Romy Capulong, human rights lawyer, Manila, September, 2006

Rei-Mon Guran, known by his parents as “Ambo,” but by his friends more colorfully as “Rambo,” celebrated his 21st birthday with friends and family in his hometown of Bulan, in Sorsogon province, on July 30, 2006. Early the next morning Guran began to return to nearby Legazpi City, where he was completing his second year as a political science student at Aquinas University. Guran’s mother and father accompanied him to the bus stop to help him load his belongings, and to wave him farewell. As Guran sat in his seat, waiting for the bus to begin its journey, a man in plainclothes walked up the center aisle of the bus and paused in front of Guran. The man pulled out a .45 caliber pistol and shot Guran four times at point-blank range, then fled.

Rei-Mon Guran was a leader on his campus and in his community. He was an elected member of his student council, the spokesperson and provincial coordinator for the left-wing League of Filipino Students at Aquinas University, and an active member of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines’ Christian Youth Fellowship.

Although the assailant was unidentified, Guran’s political activities raise concerns that he was the target of Philippine security forces who deemed him to be linked to the long-running communist New People’s Army (NPA) insurgency. An off-duty policeman was sitting on the bus when Guran was shot, but did not pursue the assailant. Other passengers were there, but not a single witness outside of the family will give evidence to the police. The witnesses say they are too scared, and fear reprisals from the assailants or their backers if they come forward. The police say that they cannot complete their investigation for lack of evidence and have asked Guran’s family to plead with witnesses to speak with them. However, Guran’s family have no means—nor the responsibility—to offer anyone protection from harassment or persecution that witnesses fear they may face in retaliation for giving evidence.

Rei-Mon Guran is just one case among hundreds of extrajudicial executions and failed prosecutions in the Philippines in recent years. This report, based on over 100 interviews and research that Human Rights Watch carried out in the Philippines between September and November 2006, documents the involvement of the armed forces in the killings of individuals because of their political activities. Witnesses and family members describe how members of left-wing political parties and non-governmental organizations, political journalists, outspoken clergy, anti-mining activists, and agricultural reform activists are being gunned down or “disappeared,” with their murders going unprosecuted.

The pattern of these unlawful killings suggests they are intended to eliminate suspected supporters of the NPA and its political wing, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and to intimidate those who work for progressive causes certain critics in the government and armed forces consider linked to the insurgency. Human rights groups, local church leaders, and politicians have repeatedly raised concerns about the impact on civilians of a government policy of “all-out war” declared against the NPA in June 2006. Most of the victims of these political killings are members of legal political parties or organizations that the military claims are allied with the communist movement.

None of the incidents investigated by Human Rights Watch involved anyone who was participating in an armed encounter with the military or was otherwise involved in NPA military operations. Each victim appears to have been individually targeted for killing.

An investigating commission established by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in August 2006 under the guidance of former Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo, completed its report in January 2007, finally giving voice to what has become an open secret in the Philippines. The report determined that the “killings of activists and media personnel is pursuant to an orchestrated plan by a group or sector with an interest in eliminating the victims, invariably activists and media personnel.” Moreover, the Melo Commission concluded that “there is certainly evidence pointing the finger of suspicion at some elements and personalities in the armed forces, in particular General Palparan, as responsible for an undetermined number of killings, by allowing, tolerating, and even encouraging the killings.” Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch was unable to uncover a single case of apparent extrajudicial killing in recent years for which a member of the armed forces was successfully prosecuted.

President Arroyo announced a wealth of new measures in the wake of the Melo Commission’s conclusions and recommendations, but the president’s initial efforts to keep the Commission report secret raises serious concerns about the political will to enforce these measures. In the end, it is actions that will speak louder than words, and the only real indication of the government’s commitment to end these killings will be when the perpetrators are finally held to account in a court of law.

The Melo Commission report lamented that not a single witness came forward to provide eyewitness testimony of military participation in any extrajudicial killing. Human Rights Watch, however, was able to interview eyewitnesses to killings that identify the perpetrators as members of the military. In addition, Human Rights Watch’s investigations uncovered other sources of information that support the allegations of the involvement of military personnel in many of the killings.

Yet the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have to date wholly failed to hold any of its members accountable for these unlawful killings, including superior officers who ordered, encouraged, or permitted them. Nor has the military’s high command—including Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Hermogenes Esperon, Jr.—shown any willingness to investigate senior officers for command responsibility, the doctrine by which a superior is held responsible when he or she knew or should have known about serious abuses but failed to take steps to prevent or punish the offenses.

Local police told Human Rights Watch that in some cases where they suspect military involvement in unlawful killings, they are unable to receive cooperation from military authorities in their investigations. In other cases, the police have clearly shied away from pursuing credible leads when they indicated the involvement of military personnel.

Indeed, an inquiry by the Philippines National Police (PNF), called Task Force Usig, begun in November 2006, laid the blame for most of the unlawful killings with the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army, despite clear evidence of military involvement. The government should independently investigate whether the police and army have obstructed justice by blocking efforts to uncover abuse by the security forces.

In the areas where killings have occurred, there is distrust in the investigative efforts of the police. Victims’ families and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they receive scant details about police investigations, while in some instances, police provide misleading information to victims’ families. Victims’ families told Human Rights Watch that the only outcome they expect from police and military investigations is impunity for the perpetrators of the killings. In many of the cases that the police consider “solved,” Human Rights Watch has found that police merely filed cases in court against suspects whose identities and whereabouts are unknown, often just known NPA members. This generates widespread fear, particularly in affected rural communities, of further military abuses, and witnesses and families are afraid to cooperate with police for fear of becoming targets of reprisal.

The government and the military need to put action behind their public endorsement of protecting human rights and their denial of involvement in killings. Victims’ families are unlikely to believe the government’s words until credible prosecutions have been a success. President Arroyo should therefore:

  • Immediately issue an executive order to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippines National Police reiterating the prohibition on the extrajudicial killing of any person. This prohibition does not include lawful attacks on combatants during hostilities with NPA forces.
  • Vigorously investigate and prosecute members of the security forces implicated in killings, particularly those identified by the Melo Commission report.
  • Immediately direct the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippines National Police, and all other executive agencies to desist from statements that are incitement to violence, such as by implying that members of non-governmental organizations are valid targets of attack because of alleged association or sympathy with the Communist Party of the Philippines or the New People’s Army.
  • Order the Inspector General of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Deputy Ombudsman, and the Provost Marshal of the Armed Forces to investigate and report publicly within 90 days on the involvement of military personnel in extrajudicial killing, and to identify failures within the Armed Forces of the Philippines investigative agencies to prosecute such criminal offenses, including, where appropriate, senior officers under the principles of command responsibility.
    • Order the director of the National Bureau of Investigation to investigate and report publicly within 90 days on the failures of the Philippines National Police and Task Force Usig to adequately investigate and recommend for prosecution those military personnel implicated in extrajudicial executions. The report should also explain why Task Force Usig and the Melo Commission came to different conclusions with regards to the complicity of superior military officers.
    • Order the Department of Justice to conduct a review within 60 days and publicly report on the failures of the current witness protection program and propose reforms. The Department of Justice should also circulate an explicit set of operational guidelines for the police stipulating individual police officer’s duties to provide protection to witnesses and individuals who report threats on their lives. The guidelines should stipulate clear sanctions for officers who fail to provide necessary protection in conformity with these guidelines.

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