Neri Colmenares On Torture, a Human Rights Code and Movie Acting

Bayan Muna’s third nominee for the May 2007 congressional elections, lawyer Neri Colmenares, talks about how he was tortured at 18, his dream of putting into law an overdue Human Rights Code, and his early dreams of making it to the movies.


Is the Philippines ready for a Human Rights Code?

Neri Colmenares, party-list group Bayan Muna’s (BM) third nominee in the May 2007 elections, has long dreamed of writing a bill codifying all the laws on human rights.

A congressional rookie candidate at 47, Colmenares, who is a lawyer, says a Human Rights Code is long overdue. This, he says, will be his priority bill if he gets to serve as BM’s third representative for the third regular session of the 13th Congress, a position last held by Joel Virador. Virador will carry the party-list group’s colors in the May 2007 local elections in his hometown, Davao City, southern Philippines.

In the Philippines where violations of human rights are being committed large-scale reminiscent of, sometimes even worse than, during the Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986), the incidents are not considered crimes under the judiciary. They however constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law.

When an individual is tortured by state agents, for example, the victim cannot file a “torture” case but of “physical injuries;” the callous “involuntary disappearance” is simply “kidnapping” in legal parlance while “political killing” is known as “murder.”

“But human rights violations are essentially different from ordinary crimes,” Colmenares says, because these are crimes against humanity that affect not just the physical but the mental, psychological and emotional state of the victims and their families.

“I should know,” he adds.

Five nights of torture

In 1978 at the age of 18, Colmenares was arrested by agents of the Philippine Constabulary (PC, now the Philippine National Police) in Bacolod City, central Philippines and was subjected to five nights of torture. “Sa gabi lang kami tinotortyur kasi sa umaga regular ang opisina sa PC headquarters kaya madaming tao” (We were tortured at night because at daytime during regular office hours there would be several people), he recalls.

His arrest, he says, was part of the crackdown on church people in the last quarter of the 1970s. Already an activist at 15, Colmenares jointed Catholic organizations such as the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and the Student Catholic Action of the Philippines (SCAP). He had just been elected as National Council member of the SCAP when arrested.

His torture, he recalls, was excruciating and degrading but adds “mas malala pa din yung sa iba kasi bata pa ako nun” (I was young, others suffered more).

His torturers, he says, told him to write a “confession” about his involvement in the underground movement on an onion skin bond paper. Then he was forced to chew and swallow the paper. He says he was also given the “regular fare” – sinipa, pinalo, pinaso ng sigarilyo (kicked, beaten up, burned with cigarettes).

But the worst, he says, was not the beating. “There comes a point you become numb.”

In one instance, one of the PC interrogators engaged him in a Russian Roulette. “It was 2 a.m. and the barrel felt chilly. He did it twice, buti hindi pumutok” (fortunately, the gun didn’t fire), he says with a tinge in his voice.

In a recent medical check-up, he says his doctor found he had a broken septum. “I never knew my nose was ever broken. Baka tinamaan nuon sa torture” (It must have been hit by torture).

He remembers he was brought to the hospital on the sixth day of his arrest because his tonsils were so swollen he could not even drink. It was only then that his parents learned he had been arrested and detained. The military convoy carrying him had to pass by the Colmenares house because the poor young man had no money.

Getting off the truck, his military escorts asked his parents to accompany him to the hospital to be treated for torture injuries and pay the bill. His father was a bank employee while mother was working at the municipal hall of their hometown, Bacolod.

“Imagine how my parents got the shock of their lives, finding me sick, beaten black and blue and bruised inside a military truck with a platoon of soldiers on guard,” he chuckles.

Second time around

After a year, the illegal possession of firearms (IPF) case against Colmenares was dismissed simply because the police had no confiscated firearm to present in court. He was set free.

Colmenares left for Manila where he volunteered for several religious organizations until he was transferred to the Cagayan Valley region, northern Philippines in 1983 as a youth organizer.

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